Staff Editoral: Internet filters hamper student learning; Blocked websites prevent students from conducting necessary research

In 2001, the Federal Communication Commission enacted a law passed by Congress called The Children’s Internet Protection Act, or CIPA. The law requires schools receiving federal funding to implement “protection measures [that] must block or filter Internet access to pictures that are: (a) obscene; (b) child pornography; or (c) harmful to minors”—and that’s all it requires schools to filter. Any additional filtering crosses the fine line between protecting our innocence and violating our rights.
The district has been using its filtering system, Cymphonix, since 2007. The system blocks websites according to pre-programmed keywords and manually added websites. The program’s list of more than 30 categories, includes tags ranging from “Alcohol” to “Hate” to “Sexual Education,” and manually blocked websites include Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s website, “ensuring student safety on the Internet is a critical concern, but many filters meant to protect students also block access to legitimate learning content.” Unfortunately, Cymphonix is one of them.
“They definitely limit anything even perceived as controversial,” said social studies teacher Jonathan Stack, who added that the filters “have a negative impact,” particularly in courses such as Racism, Global Perspectives and Genocide and the Holocaust, which deal with sensitive subjects.
Stack has had to print materials from home and distribute them to students since they were blocked by the school’s filters. Similarly, students in Public Speaking have had difficulty using the school’s computers to prepare for debates about hot-button issues like stem cell research or gun control, since the system blocks everything from “Abortion” to “Weapons.”
While these topics may be controversial, abortion and weapons are both legal. So is reading about them really harmful to minors? Not according to New Jersey’s Department of Education, which defines “harmful to minors” as “any picture, image, graphic image file, or other visual depiction” related to sex, nudity or excretion. In this definition and in CIPA itself, blocking pictures is the only issue; under the law, text can (and should) be left unfiltered. Only pictures pertaining to the stated categories must be blocked.
The filters also sometimes misidentify other genuine, school-related material while letting content that should be blocked slip through the system.
“I think they’re ineffective. The system doesn’t work,” said junior Dylan Sands, recounting a time he could not access a teacher’s webpage because it was flagged as inappropriate. But meanwhile, Cosmopolitan’s “Best Kama Sutra Tips and Sexual Positions” is not blocked, despite featuring diagrams and photographs of couples in compromising situations—something certainly intended to be blocked by CIPA.
If the filter isn’t blocking what it’s supposed to, why are we letting it block websites we have every right to access?
If a teacher does need to use a blocked website, he can send a ticket to the technology department to unblock the site. “At times there are valid requests to unblock sites for specific purposes, and the technology department facilitates this access on a case-by-case basis,” said Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Technology Joan Mast, Ed.D.
But why are teachers’ computers being filtered in the first place? As adults, they should be responsible enough to have unrestricted Internet access and can surely be trusted to determine the appropriateness of a website.
The board of education’s Acceptable Use policy for the district’s computers states that users shall “respect the privacy and personal rights of others.” But what about our rights as users?
“I believe the blocking system can be inconvenient, but because of the legal requirements it is a necessary tool,” said Mast. “The technology department is responsive to providing access when a problematic block has been experienced by a user while maintaining a legal focus on the requirements of CIPA.”
Still, the issue calls into question just how much control the school should have over our ability to access information freely. The school absolutely should block access to pornographic content from school computers, but the filtering must end there. By blocking material that is merely thought to be suggestive, not only are students and teachers inconvenienced, but our right to freely access information is stepped on.