A decade after the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) went into effect, its implementation in schools and public libraries is problematic and the scale of Internet filtering is excessive, noted panelists during the session “Revisiting The Children’s Internet Protection Act: 10 Years Later” at the American Library Association (ALA) 2014 Midwinter Meeting.
CIPA was put into place with the goal of protecting minors from Internet pornography and images deemed obscene and harmful to youth. By law, schools and libraries must have certain Internet filters in place in order to receive some federal funding.
However, CIPA’s “over-reach in implementation far beyond the requirements or intent of the law,” said moderator Helen Adams, online instructor at Mansfield University, in her opening remarks. This over-filtering results in restricting material otherwise acceptable within CIPA’s purview, limiting the information accessible to the 60 million Americans without broadband or smartphones who may rely on schools and libraries for Internet access, she added.
The findings were the result of a study undertaken by ALA’s Office for Internet Technology Policy (OITP) and Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) with support from Google. Aspects of the executive summary, “Fencing Out Knowlege: Impacts of CIPA 10 Years Later,” including its four recommendations for future study of CIPA, were summarized during the panel by Kirsten Batch, consultant to the OITP.
“What do Hotmail, Google, YouTube, Google Docs, Facebook, and National Geographic have in common?” the study asks. “They offer content and services that millions of Americans used every day to communicate, share content, and seek information. They also may be filtered under [CIPA].”
The session focused on the distinct hurdles of filtering in both public and school librarians, the problem of “creeping” filtering, as well as how filtering may particularly impact disenfranchised youth and adults. In addition, panelists discussed issues around “black box” filtering systems that do not specify what they filter and the challenge of constantly updating these systems to keep up with new Internet content.
Individual schools, libraries, and library systems have flexibility in how they interpret CIPA and how far they go in filtering. So to some extent, CIPA is open to local variances, panelists noted. However, since more low-income areas may depend on the e-rate discounts that require filtering, institutions in those areas may preemptively block material more heavily, resulting in a greater limitation on what their patrons and students can access.
Panelists also observed that that due to the dynamic nature of the Internet, filtering systems often become outdated quickly, as new sites crop up that may bypass existing filtering specifications.
An online nursing exam is among those often inaccessible sites, Batch said. “Studies and anecdotes recount numerous examples of blocked online resources [on topics] ranging from those dealing with war and genocide to safer sex and public health,” according to the study.
Discussing the strictures of filtering in public libraries vs schools, panelist Christopher Harris, school library system coordinator for the Genesee Valley (NY) Educational Partnership and School Library Journal “Next Big Thing” columnist, reminded the audience that “schools must act in loco parentis,” meaning that by law, every action a school takes must be in the best interest of children in the absence of their parents. Public libraries do not have such mandates.
“I say it’s probably good we have filters in schools,” Harris commented. “There’s bad stuff we don’t want even accidentally to come up.”
However, schools often block more than they need to, Harris said. While a youth downloading porn from a public library computer would likely just be told to leave, such an incident in a school setting could result in tabloid headlines, he noted.
“Porn could be brought into school on paper” before the Internet, Harris added, emphasizing that then and now, students will find a way to access material that interests them.
Batch said that excessive filtering occurs in schools because “we’re seeing a creep to manage issues of cyberbullying and classroom management” as well as what CIPA requires. This results in obstructing social media and sites that students might use to create content as well as access it.
The panelists and audience discussed the pros and cons of “black box” filters designed by companies that don’t specify in detail what they block, as opposed to filters designed by schools or libraries. “For libraries, filters are black boxes that lack objectivity and transparency,” according to the study. However, there are potential legal issues for schools that design their own filters instead of accepting ready-made black box software from an outside company or third party.
“Once you start blocking something you become more liable for anything that comes through,” Harris said. “If pornography gets through, you have a higher level of liability.” However, if a third party designed the filter, the school is less responsible.
Further discussing possible open-source “grey box” software that could spell out what it blocks and could be tailored to individual schools, panelist Martin Garnar, professor and reference services librarian at Regis University in Denver, noted that “a more transparent box would allow kids access to porn sites,” meaning that he believes kids could hack and discover the content of those boxes.
Panelists concluded that there are no easy answers to the problem of over-filtering and the resulting inequity of information access. Batch summarized the study’s four recommendations for further research on CIPA: increase awareness of the spectrum of choices regarding filtering, develop a toolkit for schools and libraries that focuses on current research and best practices, establish a digital repository for existing research on CIPA, and conduct more research evaluating how filtering impacts students.
Panelists strongly agreed that in addition to more balanced filtering, students must be better versed in how to handle the allures and dangers of an unfiltered system. “Students aren’t receiving assistance to navigate their ethical choices,” Batch said, noting that kids will experience less-restrictive filtering once in college.
When the efficacy of a possible move to try to roll back CIPA was raised by an audience member, Garnar noted that there has been talk of pursuing a “repeal.” However, others observed that such a confrontation could backfire, with a renewed spotlight on filtering possibly resulting in stronger regulations.