Filter blocks 15 of 34 categories in Tennessee schools

Friday, November 13, 1998

Education Networks of America, the private company that oversees all Tennessee public school students' access to the Internet, says that its centralized filter blocks 15 of 34 categories that the software recognizes.

ENA contracts with N2H2 Inc., a Seattle-based company that provides a network-based filter known as Bess. Bess can be configured to block up to 34 potentially objectionable categories.

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

ENA's filtering rules block 15 of these categories, including: adults only, hate/discrimination, illegal, pornography, sex, violence, chat, drugs, gambling, tasteless/gross, profanity, lingerie, nudity, school cheating information, and suicide/murder.

Eileen Amaba, ENA's vice president for sales and marketing, said: “Education Networks of America jointly decided with the (Tennessee) Department of Education which categories should be blocked to students on the Internet. “

Amaba said the 15 categories, which were selected in late August, were determined to be those with the “least likelihood to have K-12 learning value and the least likely to relate to anything in the curriculum being taught in the schools.”

“The K-12 network is set up for children and minors,” Amaba said. “The bulk of users are children less than 18 years of age. We want to make sure that the material they view is suitable for children. The whole premise or vision of the network is to recognize that schools are established for children.”

Jonathan Wallace, founding member of the anti-filtering group The Censorware Project, said that “the problem with filtering out sites such as 'tasteless,' 'violence,' and 'discrimination' is that even legitimate sites discussing these issues in a neutral manner will be blocked.”

Jim O'Halloran, director of marketing for N2H2, said that it is “extremely unlikely” that an Internet site carrying a news story involving violence could be blocked.

“To us news is news,” he said. “We generally defer to reliable sources. The singular exception in the history of the company was the Starr report, which we decided to filter based on its sexual content.”

“We have a free-speech consciousness,” O'Halloran said. “That is why we always provide controls at the local level, so school administrators can override the blocking with the use of a password.”

Wallace acknowledged that “this is a legal area which has not yet been specifically adjudicated.” Different constitutional issues are raised when the government filters information to 7-year-olds, he said, as opposed to when it filters information to adults.

However, Wallace added, there are also different constitutional issues when the government blocks information to 18-year-olds as opposed to 6-year-olds. “A filtering system which does not distinguish between a 17- or 18-year-old user and a 6-year-old user is much more likely to be constitutionally suspect,” he said.

“We don't differentiate between K-12,” Amaba said. “We don't, for instance, block a sex site for K-6, but then say it's okay for 9-12.”

Dr. Jane Walters, the state commissioner of education, was out of the office until Monday and unavailable for comment.