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7 Myths About Internet Filters September 11, 2011

Posted by hadams in Banned Websites Awareness Day, Check this out!.

Seven Myths about Internet filters

by Doug Johnson dougj@doug-johnson.com and http://www.doug-johnson.com

I am very happy AASL isaddressing the issue of filtering and intellectual freedom. It’s been a hottopic for me personally for over 15 years. Given my training as a librarian, I often find myself at philosophical odds with my fellow technology directors and school administrators who come from a more “control-oriented” background of technology management and use.

Here are some common myths created both through ignorance and intent about Internet filters. These mistaken beliefs often result in poor decisions about the use of this software, leading to censorship of online resources . You and your school will be more successful in developing good policies about filtering if you have good information about why and how this software. And it will be up to you, the librarian, to bring intellectual freedom into the conversation.

  1. The Childhood Protection Act (CIPA) is specific and  broad in what must be filtered in schools. CIPA reads: “The protection  measures must block or filter Internet access to pictures that are: (a)  obscene, (b) child pornography, or (c) harmful to minors” That’s it.  Karen Cator, Department of Education’s Director of Education Technology, reassures teachers that schools will not risk loosing E-rate funding for  unblocking YouTube or giving teachers broad access to the Internet. <tinyurl.com/filteringfacts> And no, Facebook does not have to be blocked, as a clarification in the FCC Order 11-125 of August 2011 states implicitly <tinyurl.com/fccCIPA>.
  2. It’s the filtering company that determines what is blocked. Most filters have a great deal of customizability when it comes to what is filtered. Broad categories of blocked sites can be enabled or disabled. Schools can override filters by adding specific sites to “white lists” of allowed sites or to “black lists” of blocked sites. Filtering can (legally) be turned off in schools on specific computers by user category, by specific IP address of a computer, or by using a filter bypass login.
  3. Some sites must be blocked due to bandwidth limitations. A common reason for blocking sites like YouTube or Pandora is that they use too much bandwidth. While it is true that most districts have a limited amount of Internet connectivity, devices called packetshapers can be use to prioritize traffic on a network, eliminating the need for band-width intensive sites to be blocked completely.
  4. The processes for re-consideration of print materials don’t apply to online resources. Digital resources are as legitimate as print resources and the same criteria for removing online resources apply to them as apply to library books, textbooks, magazines and videos. Once a district has decided that the Internet is an educational resource, any removal of a specific resource on the Internet must follow board-adopted policies and procedures on the reconsideration of education resources.
  5. The technology department must determine what is blocked. The major intellectual freedom issue related to filters is not whether a particular resource is blocked or not blocked, but who makes the blocking decision and how it is made. Determinations about the availability of Internet resources should be made by a formal group of educators, technicians, and community members at two levels. The first level is the broad filter level – selection of the filtering product itself and the categories settings of that filter. The second level is the individual Internet site level (Planned Parenthood, SarahPAC, YouTube, Facebook, etc.) Single individuals should not make blocking decisions.
  6. Internet filters are so good that supervision of students while online and instruction in online safety and appropriate use is not necessary. One of the biggest dangers of Internet filters is over-reliance on them. No filter catches 100% of all pornographic sites. Users can use proxies and other work-arounds to bypass the school’s Internet filter. And increasingly, students are using personal devices such as cell phones and tablets that use cellphone carrier data plans for Internet connectivity that are completely unaffected by school filters.
  7. Internet filters and intellectual freedom are mutually exclusive. When chosen, configured and monitored carefully a filter can become a selection tool. A limited filtering system that keeps the little ones from accidentally accessing inappropriate or even dangerous websites is ethically responsible. It’s not the technology but its application that can lead to censorship.

Find below a selection of my writings, some serious and some not so serious, on the topic of filters and intelletual freedom. Note that one dates back to 1994. This has been a long battle!

Are You Sure You Want an Internet Filter? Virtual Censorship is Still Censorship
TechTrends, May/June 1998

Blocked Bytes Week
Blue Skunk Blog, September, 2008

Censorship by Omission
Library Media Connection, January/February 2010.

The Engagement Filter
Blue Skunk Blog, June 2007

Filtering and Hyper-compliance
Blue Skunk Blog, June 2010

Filtering Follies
Education World, November, 2007

Freedom and Filters
The Book Report, 2003

Freedom to Learn
Library Media Connection, Jan/February 2012 (forthcoming)

The Long-term Solution to Internet Blocking Problems
Blue Skunk Blog, April 2006

Maintaining Intellectual Freedom in a Filtered World
Leading & Learning, May 2005

Why Filters Will Never Be Enough
Blue Skunk Blog, November 2006

Why Minnesota’s Children Need Access to the Internet
Text of talk at a TIES meeting, 1994

Posted on behalf of Doug Johnson.


1. Cassandra Barnett - September 13, 2011

Thanks for this very concise list. When I give this to the decision makers in my building & district, I think they might actually read it. Certainly, I will be able to use this in my efforts to open up our filter so that my students have the access they need.

2. Amy Bennett - September 15, 2011

Great article, thank you! We talk about similar issues in Web Filtering in Today’s Schools: http://resources.lightspeedsystems.com/pdf/Web-Filtering-in-Todays-Schools.pdf

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