Public libraries must begin taking steps to prevent child pornography and other harmful content from reaching the eyes of youngsters using their PCs under the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which went into effect July 1. If they don't, the libraries will lose critical technology funding from the federal government.
School administrators have largely been complying with CIPA, since they didn't join the American Library Association's First Amendment challenge to the law. And now the administrators report that Web content filters can be expensive, high-maintenance tools.
The law is similar, though different, from the 1998 Children's Online Protection Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down last week just at CIPA was to go into effect. The justices in a 5-4 decision said the law infringed on pornographers' First Amendment rights.
In a recent survey of public schools sponsored by San Diego-based Internet and e-mail filter maker St. Bernard Software Inc., many school administrators said they lack the resources to block porn, hate sites and other harmful content.
Web filters, said school representatives, are an imperfect tool, often blocking benign content and green-lighting pornographic images for viewing by minors.
The St. Bernard survey shows that poorly trained staff and inadequate funding are making it hard for schools to maintain their filtering efforts. More than half (59%) of the 200 schools in the survey said they are having at least as much trouble preventing students from viewing inappropriate content as they did last year.
School administrators and a library law consultant said that while some students are clever enough to circumvent filtering systems, their biggest problem is the systems themselves, which often require the constant tweaking of blacklists and sanctioned URLs.
But those schools maintaining tight usage restrictions are claiming success with their filters. In Maine, which issued 39,000 laptops to children in its public middle schools, that means having technologists work closely with principals and teachers to ensure that its Internet filtering software, Bess, from San Jose, Calif.-based N2H2, is customized to its districts' varying educational needs.
"This was a huge issue for us at first," said Bette Manchester, director of special projects for the Maine Department of Education, who heads the laptop program for middle school students. "But things have been running smoothly since then, through regular meetings with teachers and principals."
Public schools and libraries that don't comply with CIPA will lose federal funding they receive in the form of E-Rate technology discounts, which in some districts comprise as much as 85% of the schools' technology budget, according to federal government statistics.
But the costs of complying with Web filtering requirements (software filters and maintenance can cost more than $100 per PC per year) may be too much for libraries in rural and inner city areas, said Cupertino, Calif-based library law consultant Mary Minow. "For them," she said, "the burden and costs of complying with CIPA may outweigh the E-Rate benefit."