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GOP legislators: Schools filter Web -- or no Net funds

Industry Standard

(IDG) -- Two Republican legislators have urged the U.S. Congress to vote in favor of cutting off Internet access subsidies for schools and libraries that don't block children's access to online pornography.

The Children's Internet Protection Act (HR4577) would cut funding to noncompliant elementary and secondary schools benefitting from a 1996 measure providing a subsidy called "e-rate," covering part of the cost of Internet access.

To comply for the subsidy, schools would have to select and install filtering or blocking software on their computers to cut off access to obscene material and child pornography, and enforce a policy to ensure the blocking software is being used while minors are using the computers.

The cost for school systems to filter Internet access for students could compare to the cost for Internet access itself, offsetting the federal benefits, according to Charles Campbell, technology liaison for the school district of Worcester, Mass.

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Worcester's schools have about 6,000 computers online, at a cost of about $15,000 to the district. "It would be $50,000 without the subsidy," he says, and even more if the city's school computers weren't hooked to the Internet through a wide-area network.

Administrative policy decisions predating the proposed legislation led Worcester to install filters on school computers. Worcester uses CyberPatrol from Microsystems Software to prevent students from accessing inappropriate material, at a cost of $7,000 to $10,000 a year, Campbell said.

He conservatively estimated the cost of installing and maintaining filtering software on every desktop at $60,000, if it became necessary.

"You don't get any funding for that [filtering]. We're lucky we have a wide-area network here, so that allows us to cut down our filtering costs," he says. "If you're going to mandate the thing, fine, but make it e-rateable."

Several anti-filtering organizations opposed mandated filters on technical and free-speech grounds. Blocking software prevents access either accidentally or deliberately to non-obscene material protected by the First Amendment, such as sites discussing breast cancer or AIDS, as well as sites that are critical of the filtering company, such as the anti-blocking site Peacefire.org, those critics said.

Internet access free-speech issues haven't been high on the agenda of the Worcester school board, according to school officials. The decision to filter was made as an administrative decision, rather than a move by the city school committee, said James Garvey, Worcester's school superintendent. "I think they would be upset if we didn't have a policy in place, though," he says.

Campbell noted that while "no software can possibly be 100 percent effective" in blocking unwanted material without also blocking inoffensive material, he was satisfied that the technology was working effectively.

"We don't want to be seen as the ones who are making the decisions about what is and isn't blocked. We're deferring to the company, the folks who are supposed to be the experts," he says. "In my opinion, the only real protection we have is the teacher that deals with the children on a day-to-day basis. That's the way to protect children, that's the bottom line."

The proposed bill also applies to libraries, adding a further requirement to block "any other material that the library determines to be inappropriate for minors." In order to comply with the law, libraries and schools would have to install, at their own cost, filtering software like CyberPatrol or CyberSitter from Solid Oak Systems.

"We're on pins and needles right now," says Claudette Tennant, assistant director in the office of government relations for the American Library Association, who is opposed to the legislation. Congress is in a "really tough position right now," she says. The way the bill is written makes it appear that lawmakers who oppose it are opposed to protecting children, she said.

The ALA, along with teachers associations, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, opposes the measure because of its sweeping language, requiring all computers with federally subsidized Internet access to be filtered, Tennant said. "One of the biggest problems for us is that it just tramples over any local control. Education has always been a local concern. The content decisions have always been made by the locals," she says.

The costs for libraries, particularly in small towns, also are a concern. "It also places a huge unfunded mandate on schools and libraries. The systems that provide more flexibility and more local control are the more expensive systems," Tennant says.

While Tennant believes the measure will fail a constitutional challenge in court the way similar filtering requirements have fallen in recent years, lawyers for conservative groups like the American Family Association believe the Children's Internet Protection Act stands better chances, arguing that the government has an interest in regulating the secondary effects of Internet access, the way it does with zoning laws to diminish urban blight.

"I think the thing to remember is that the Internet is totally unregulated," says Michael DePrimo, a lawyer for the American Family Association. "What do you do about an 8- or 9-year-old looking on the Internet for horses that encounters a bestiality site? ... The Supreme Court struck down the [Communications Decency Act] because it placed prohibitions on the speaker, but filtering doesn't suppress the speaker."

The measure is an addition to the major appropriations bill for the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Education. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., proposed the amendment to the bill, which passed the Senate on a 95-3 vote. A competing measure from Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., would allow schools and libraries to develop an Internet use policy in lieu of installing blocking technology. The Santorum measure passed 75-24. A conference committee must work out the differences in the measures.



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