So you are at your public library about to download or view information for a research paper, and then it happens: The library’s blocking software lets you know that you are not allowed to access a certain webpage because it has been filtered out by the network’s firewall. You are immediately disappointed because you know the information you are trying to access is harmless and poses no threat to minors; however, according to the library’s firewall, the webpage has been categorized as “adult,” allowing you no access to the page. This is not only a disappointment but also a disservice to many students who are simply trying to access informational resources.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, public libraries and schools across the country “that receive discounts for Internet access or internal connections through the E-rate program” are subject to meeting certain requirements imposed by the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). If libraries and schools wish to continue receiving these discounts, they must ensure their network has a blocking software installed to “block or filter Internet access to pictures that are: (a) obscene; (b) child pornography; or (c) harmful to minors (for computers that are accessed by minors).” Of course, parents, guardians, and educators can appreciate and respect that these measures are put in place to protect our children from accessing harmful content. The problem, however, is the over-filtering of content that occurs too often: “Filtering beyond the requirements of CIPA.” Over-filtering can lead to the oversight of credible sites and information by students because there may be no access to them. Filtering is subjectively interpreted by school and library administrators, so what one deems as acceptable may not be to someone else. Contemporary issues like gender equality, same-sex marriage, and the LGBT community are being filtered, hindering a student’s ability to learn and comprehend these prevalent societal matters. Keith Kreuger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking said,
[T]he key is balancing safety and access. Without question, students need to become digitally literate (having the knowledge and ability to use information and technology for varied purposes) because ultimately they live in an unfiltered world. School systems need to ensure that we create a safe environment [but] if we believe any technical solution like filtering will keep us totally safe, that is misplaced.
Librarians across the country have fought hard for equal access and do their best to offer services and databases to all but are still limited in many ways. The American Library Association has spoken out against over-filtering and the way it denies students the opportunities to research controversial topics. ALA believes in protecting students’ access to “legal constitutionally protected information that is necessary for their studies[, and] personal well-being.” The lack of access to certain content poses a big obstacle for individuals who do not have home Internet access. Their research can be viewed as “incomplete” simply because much of their access is denied, and these individuals rely on public computers for much or all of their school work in this digital age.
This article was not written with the intention of swaying thoughts on the benefits of filtering software. There is indeed a need for this kind of software to prevent access to malicious and pornographic content. But administrators need to be mindful and really reconsider the filtering process. Simply put, there is no need to deny students the opportunity to learn. Progress and innovation are key these days. Students understand that in order to be successful, they need to be tech savvy and have access to a multitude of credible information. Mary Beth Hertz, technology coordinator at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, adds that they “also have a basic understanding of oppression and the idea that limiting access to the Internet limits people from opportunity. We sometimes think too much about the content that we block, and we forget [that] when we cut kids off [from social media] we limit their opportunities to succeed, explore their passions, and discover their strengths and talents.”