Company to filter Internet access for all Tennessee public schools

Wednesday, November 11, 1998

Tennessee, the first state to connect all its public schools to the Internet, also will be the first state to centrally filter World Wide Web content on school computers, says Al Ganier, the president and CEO of Education Networks of America.

The company has scheduled a news conference for next Monday morning to explain the system that Ganier says will provide students a measure of protection from the harmful materials on the information superhighway. According to Ganier, the briefing is scheduled to follow remarks by Gov. Don Sundquist on the filtering system to the Tennessee School Board Association.

“As a corporate policy, we have a limitation on public school students visiting certain Web sites that contain the worst of pornography,” Ganier said. “We do provide a limited degree of filtering but if the school system says they want no filtered access, we turn it off.”

For the past three months Education Networks of America has provided Tennessee schools with filtered Internet access using Bess, a server-based software product produced by the Seattle-based company N2H2 Inc. On its Web site, N2H2 explains that, unlike other filters, Bess cannot be disabled because it is controlled from a central location.

Ganier says that approximately 60% of Tennessee public schools receive Internet services through the Education Networks of America's network. In the next month, all schools in the state will be connected to the ENA network.

Jim O'Halloran, director of marketing for N2H2, said: “Bess is our flagship product, and our main customers are school districts. We have the leading market share for filtering products in K-12 school systems in the country.

“In our process of review, we provide our customers, like ENA, with nightly updates of potentially objectionable Web sites which we have divided into over 30 categories, the largest being pornography.”

The 34 categories that may be blocked include: adults only, hate/discrimination, illegal, pornography, sex, violence, message/bulletin boards, nudity, personal information, profanity, murder/suicide, school cheating information, tobacco, weapons, games, medical, moderated, text only, alcohol, chat, drugs, free mail, free pages, gambling, tasteless/gross, lingerie, employment search, jokes, news, personals, recreation/entertainment, sports, stocks and swimsuits.

It was not clear yet how many or which of these categories would be blocked in all schools.

Ganier insists there is no intent to infringe on students' First Amendment rights. “We as a corporation decided that this is the way to get the maximum amount of material to the greatest number of people without infringing on anyone's First Amendment rights,” Ganier said. “A huge number of people's First Amendment rights are being infringed on now because some school district officials are not allowing any Internet access.”

He argues that the lack of filtering actually causes greater censorship of material because it causes schools to prevent all student access to the Internet which he calls “an extraordinary tool for learning.”

Ganier says he wants “the Internet to give students access to the world's museums, libraries and databases.”

There is a big distinction between filtering at public libraries and filtering at public schools, Ganier says, because public libraries also serve adults. “I have a major problem with filtering in public libraries, but not in public schools.”

During the past year and a half, the Nashville-based Education Networks of America has connected 1,740 public schools in Tennessee to the Internet. According to the company's Web site, it was recently awarded a three-and-a-half-year contract with the state to provide comprehensive Internet services to approximately 900,000 students. Through the company's network, called ConnecTEN, nearly 60,000 school computers are connected to the Internet. All of those computers eventually will have the Bess filtering configuration.

O'Halloran says Bess is much more effective than most filtering products because it works from one centralized server instead of having to be installed separately on each computer. “The server-based filtering products are much better because the older-style filters are unable to keep pace with the growth of the World Wide Web and particularly the growth of pornographic Web sites,” O'Halloran said.

According to O'Halloran, N2H2 employees find about 1,000 new pornographic Web pages a day.

Ganier does not see a First Amendment problem because Education Networks of America is a private company. “We own this network and provide it to each individual school in the state,” he said. “We are not a government entity but a service provider. We are a corporation, not the government.”

However, New York-based software executive and attorney Jonathan Wallace, founding member of the anti-filtering organization The Censorware Project, said: “That is incorrect because there is a basic premise that the state cannot do indirectly what it's not permitted to do directly. If the state cannot filter because of the overbreadth problems with the filtering products, then they can't contract with a third party to do so. This would be the same as a public school hiring the Christian Coalition to pick books for its libraries.”

“I don't profess to be a legal expert but I am committed to freedom of speech on the Internet,” Ganier said. “There is a certain radical element in our society that destroys First Amendment rights. We want to provide greater information to students but in order to discuss and debate this issue with someone we have to begin at the starting point that a certain amount of material, pornography, should not be accessed by students.”

Ganier says his company has built in “three layers of protection” into the network that are designed to prevent possible abuses or too much blocking of material on the Internet. These three layers include:

  • Allowing anyone, including students and educators, to ask ENA to reconsider blocking a particular site.
  • Allowing a teacher to turn off the filtering software if it's to seek educational resources or for other teaching purposes.
  • Allowing an individual school district to turn the whole filtering system off and/or contract with Education Networks of America to obtain a customized filtering system to obtain more control over which categories it wants to provide and not provide to its students.

David Burt, president of the pro-filtering organization Filtering Facts, agrees that school districts should provide some level of filtering and says he approves of Bess.

However, he said he was concerned “that some paranoid school system administrators will go and turn on all the categories and block way too much material.”

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of Tennessee's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, fears that the move toward increased filtering will lead to the censorship of material protected by the First Amendment.

“It is always disconcerting when we start placing blocking software on computers because when we do that we are clearly censoring valuable protected speech,” Weinberg said. “Software filters are unable to discern between legal and illegal materials. While obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment, blocking software also restricts access to valuable, protected speech about topics ranging from AIDS to reproductive freedom issues to gay and lesbian issues.”