Monthly Archives: August 2011

ACLU Sues Missouri School District for Overblocking Internet Websites

eSchoolNews’ August 17, 2011 article, “ACLU sues Missouri school district over internet filtering,” provides details about a new lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Camdenton R-III School District in central Missouri. The lawsuit is part of the ACLU’s “Don’t Filter Me” campaign. Camdenton Schools are accused in the lawsuit of prejudicially blocking students’ access to educational websites about gay, lesbian, and transgender issues, while providing access to anti-LGBT sites.

Diagram of school content filtering

According to the ACLU’s August 15th press release:

The lawsuit argues it is discriminatory and unreasonable to require students to ask for permission every time they want to access a new LGBT website when students can freely access anti-LGBT websites.

The press release also reveals Camdenton Schools is using the URL Blacklist for content filtering. According to the ACLU, URL Blacklist:

…has a viewpoint-discriminatory category called “sexuality,” which blocks all LGBT-related information, including hundreds of materials that are not sexually explicit. The filter does, however, allow students to view anti-LGBT sites.

The April 11, 2011 article from the ACLU, “ACLU “Don’t Filter Me” Initiative Finds Schools In Four More States Unconstitutionally Censoring LGBT Websites,” provides more details about which LGBT-related websites are blocked and permitted in some U.S. school districts. The article links to the “Don’t Filter Me: Students, Check Your School’s Web Filter!” page. This campaign asks students at school to check for access to the following five LGBT websites:

  1. Day of Silence: http://dayofsilence.org
  2. It Gets Better Project: http://itgetsbetter.org/
  3. The Trevor Project: http://thetrevorproject.org/
  4. GSA Network: http://gsanetwork.org/
  5. Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network: http://glsen.org/

The campaign also asks students to check if the following “anti-LGBT, ‘pray away the gay’ websites” are accessible or blocked:

  1. National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality: http://narth.com/
  2. People Can Change: http://peoplecanchange.com/
  3. Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays: http://pfox.org/

The following video provides an explanation, targeted at students, for how they can help in the “Don’t Filter Me” campaign.

As far as I know, this lawsuit by the ACLU against a school district for over blocking Internet websites is the first of its kind. The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires schools and libraries in the United States receiving federal Erate funding have a policy for blocking offensive Internet content and enforce that policy. Schools locally define filtering policies, however. According to the ACLU’s press release:

“School districts cannot use filtering software that discriminates against websites based on their viewpoint,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. “This filter was designed to block more than just adult content and is not viewpoint-neutral. There are many other filtering systems available that do not arbitrarily group websites like PFLAG in the same category as adult-oriented websites.”

It is very important for school officials to understand the laws in the United States related to Internet content filtering as well as the importance of not “over blocking” web content. As I’ve written and noted previously, some of our U.S. schools filter Internet content more severely than China. This is a big problem, and should be addressed for a variety of reasons. I started the projects “Balanced Content Filtering in Schools” and “Unmasking the Digital Truth” to help address these issues. I also included an appendix in my July 2011 eBook, “Playing with Media: simple ideas for powerful sharing” on “Balanced Content Filtering in Schools.” The issues here go beyond LGBT website access. In the United States, we ideologically support free expression and the marketplace of ideas. We recognize the need to censor certain kinds of content on the Internet in our schools and libraries, through the CIPA law, but that mandated censorship is still LIMITED. It will be interesting to follow this case and see how this develops. Hopefully one outcome will be more balanced approaches toward content filtering in Camdenton Schools and elsewhere.

For more background about this ACLU campaign, see the March 2011 article in the Yale Herald, “Yale Law goes online for LGBT rights.”

 

 

 

 

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The phrase “CIPA complaint content” can be misleading

Today at the “Building Human Connections in a Digital World” Educational Technology Conference in Missoula, Missouri, I attended Terrisa Metzler’s presentation “Balancing Learning and Security in a Web 2.0 World.” I am very interested in the topics of this presentation because of the Balanced Filtering in Schools project (balancediltering.org), the “Unmasking the Digital Truth” project, and my breakout session next week at the “Technology Runs Through It” conference in Missoula, “Smart Networks.”

Terrisa Metzler, regional sales manager for Lightspeed Systems, presented this session. During the session in demonstrating the “My Big Campus” educational / social networking platform Lightspeed offers free to everyone (not just its customers.) Terrisa made a comment I’d like to address which can be misleading. Terrisa showed how teachers can embed “cleaned” YouTube videos on their webpages within My Big Campus, and stated this is good because it protects students from “non-CIPA compliant YouTube videos.”

CIPA is the Children’s Internet Protection Act and applies to all U.S. schools and libraries (both public and private) which receive federal E-Rate funding.

Here is the clarification I’d like to offer: There is no such a thing as “CIPA compliant content” or “non-CIPA compliant content.” There obviously IS content online not appropriate for school, but that determination is not made by the CIPA law, it’s made by local authorities. CIPA requires that each school or library subject to E-Rate rules have a filtering policy in place and enforce it, but it does NOT definitively state specific videos and other webpages which should be blocked and should be accessible on school networks. Tina Barseghian’s recent post, “Straight from the DOE: Dispelling Myths About Blocked Sites” (highlighted in the BalancedFiltering.org post, “Do your school administrators REALLY understand CIPA?”) is an excellent article about these issues.

Words matter, and we need to be careful that our discussions about content filtering, CIPA, e-Discovery, FERPA, COPPA, etc. clarify requirements rather than confuse people.

It is confusing to say, “My Big Campus” keeps your school CIPA compliant by filtering out non-CIPA compliant YouTube videos. CIPA requires a content filtering policy and enforcement of that policy. CIPA does not define “compliant / non-compliant YouTube videos” or other content.

Teresa also said: “WikiPedia is a site of hotlinks, and students can quickly get to inappropriate content” from WikiPedia articles. She then advocated for how Lightspeed Systems lets teachers whitelist (allow on the content filter) just a specific WikiPedia page, but then every hyperlink on that page is blocked from student access.

I have big reservations about this. I understand Lightspeed Systems is a vendor and is creating a product to meet consumer demands, which include IT personnel who want to overblock the web for students and teachers far beyond what is required by US law. I also understand a system in place which lets teachers directly unblock websites for student access, and specifically whitelist websites for student access, is a HUGE leap forward from the “digital prisons” in which many of our K-12 learners live today at school.

The perspective of educators like Matthew Kitchens, who wants to shut down open web publishing of content by students at school and for school, is also troubling. Lightspeed Systems tweeted a link to Matthew’s post and amplified this today. Matthew wrote in July:

I believe social networking has a place in the classroom, when used within a closed, monitored learning management system(s)…

LightSpeed Systems is a big company and has a lot of clout. Terrisa said Alan November as well as Kevin Honeycutt are now presenting on behalf of LightSpeed Systems at educational conferences. I am very appreciative of Terrisa’s session today, but I think it is very important to be careful and scrutinize the words and phrases we use to discuss these issues. These aren’t minor points.

Terrisa said in our session, “Every filtering company today is working hard to block Google image thumbnails, and we’ve done it.” She then went on to describe a hypothetical student who tries to search on the network for ‘Playboy.’

The issues here are both technical and human. Schools need policies in place to protect students and comply with CIPA as well as other laws. There is a significant difference, however, between protecting students from objectionable content and trying to stop all students from searching for anything inappropriate online. We also have obligations as educators to help students use sites besides Google Images which are copyright friendly and less inappropriate image content. I’m tackling that issue tomorrow at the conference in my breakout on Pecha Kucha presentations and ending PowerPoint abuse.

LightSpeed Systems has some good products and services. The ability for IT in your school/district to have access to bandwidth utilization graphs as well as data like that shown below by Terrisa in our session is vital. Many of our smaller/rural schools don’t have this kind of capability and need it. In Oklahoma, NewNet66 is a great organization putting tools with similar features in the hands of its member school educators.

Traffic by Protocol

I’m really interested in advocating for more balanced content filtering in our schools. LightSpeed is doing some good things to address overblocking, but I’m concerned about advocacy which would push everyone onto the “closed web” and discourage learners from publishing on the open web. See my notes from Karen Fasimpaur’s session, “Open Educational Resources: Share, Remix, Learn” at the 2011 ISTE conference for more on that topic. I’m also concerned with definitions of WikiPedia like “it’s mainly a hotlist of inappropriate links” which perpetuate misconceptions about the site rather than clarifying what the value of the site is and how it should be used AND authored by our students. I’m finally concerned about phrases like “CIPA complaint content” which are misleading and do NOT help others better understand the actual requirements and terms of the CIPA law.

On a related note: Two free websites which can be used to show “cleaned” YouTube videos “live” to students are VideoPure and QuietTube. These weren’t mentioned by Terrisa, but I want to share them since they relate to the topics of this post. Those sites don’t stop students from visiting other “related” videos on YouTube, but they do eliminate related videos, comments, etc. when showing a YouTube video to students live in class. I included those sites in the Video chapter of my eBook,”Playing with Media: simple ideas of powerful sharing.”

What’s your take on these issues?

 

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