The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island has praised the General Assembly for introducing more transparent standards for the use of Internet filters in schools in the state.

Since the passing of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), K-12 schools and libraries that apply for E-Rate discounts have been required to implement a web filter to restrict access to inappropriate or harmful website content. The web filter must be configured to block obscene images, child pornography, and other content that could be considered harmful to minors.

Overzealous Use of School Internet Filters in Rhode Island

While schools in Rhode Island have complied with CIPA, many have gone further and have used Internet content filtering software to block far more website content than CIPA requires. Blocking potentially harmful website content protects children from harm; however, schools must take care not to overblock website content.

There is a clear difference between pornographic content which contains images of naked individuals and artwork which depicts nudes for example. The former has potential to cause harm to minors, the latter has educational value and should not be blocked. If there are no standards for the use of Internet filters in schools, it is all too easy for valuable educational material to be inadvertently blocked.

Three years ago UCLA published a report on how overblocking of website content can harm public education. The report details some of the difficulties staff and students have had accessing valuable website content after web filtering solutions have been implemented in educational establishments in Rhode Island.

Internet filters allow website content to be blocked based on categories. Schools may, for instance, choose to block content relating to alcohol. However, the report says some students had tried searching for polyvinyl alcohol – information on which was required for their studies, yet the content was not accessible because the Internet filtering category “alcohol” had been blocked.

Students who want to access LGBT information or individuals wishing to find out about sexually transmitted diseases should be able to access that information, yet this type of website content can all too easily be blocked if Internet filters are not carefully applied.  The ACLU believes that transparent standards for the use of Internet filters in schools are necessary. Schools should be open about the type of content that they block and the reasons for doing so. With greater transparency students can be protected from harm, yet have access to valuable educational material.

New Standards for the Use of Internet Filters in Schools in Rhode Island

Rep. Art Handy and Sen. Adam Satchell sponsored the new bills (H-7583-A and S-2172-A) which require written policies to be implemented which explain the categories of website content which are blocked by the state Department of Education and school districts. The new legislation also requires reasons to be provided for blocking specific categories of website content. Policies must also be reviewed on an annual basis.

Hillary Davis, policy associate of ACLA of Rhode Island, praised the introduction of new standards for the use of Internet filters in schools by the General Assembly. She said, “The Internet offers a world of educational opportunities that Rhode Island’s students have been denied because of overzealous filtering software.” Davis went on to say, “This new law will go a long way toward ensuring teachers can bring their full range of resources to the classroom, and that students can complete their studies without interruption or frustration.”