Instilling moral character more effective than installing Internet filters

Sunday, April 15, 2001

Students logging onto school computers after spring break may find a lot less traffic on the information highway.

That's because school officials are busily installing filtering technology to block students from accessing pornography and other material deemed “inappropriate for minors.”

What's the rush? Well, under the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) passed last December, failure to filter could lead to loss of federal money for technology.

Not that educators need a financial incentive to install blocking software. Many schools already have filters, and a recent First Amendment Center poll found that 90% of teachers and administrators favor the idea.

But like many popular “quick fixes” in public schools, mandating filters may be a costly failure.

Civil-liberties groups warn that filters may give teachers and parents a false sense of security. Many objectionable sites aren't blocked, and many harmless sites are.

According to Consumer Reports, most filtering software fails to block one out of every five objectionable sites. Moreover, most of the companies producing this software don't tell you what sites they are blocking or how they determine what is “obscene.”

The concern about CIPA isn't related just to filtering technology, but also to federal mandates that force a one-size-fits-all solution on every school receiving federal money for technology. (That's just about everybody.)

When this bill was before Congress, the United States Catholic Conference (composed of the Catholic bishops) argued that local communities — not the federal government — should decide how to ensure responsible Internet use by students.

The bishops pointed to the experience of Catholic schools where educators and parents have taken a variety of steps to protect children from inappropriate material on the Web.

One of the most successful approaches has been to give kids courses on ethical use of the computer. Students are granted an “Internet license” after signing a contract outlining their ethical responsibilities. Violation of the terms of the license results in loss of Internet access.

What many Catholic schools and others have discovered is that teaching ethical use of the Internet is far more effective than installing filters. While some of these schools may also use filters, others rely entirely on ethical Internet-use policies. The point is that parents and teachers (not the federal government) decide what works best.

This isn't an argument against any and all filtering. If the software improves and companies disclose what sites they're blocking and why, filters may be one tool for protecting children, especially young children.

But even the best filters can't discriminate among more than 1 billion Web pages. Only moral character can do that.

Rather than adopting an unfunded mandate for filters that may not work, the government should provide funds through the U.S. Department of Education for local communities to implement programs teaching students how to use the Internet responsibly.

As the Catholic bishops told Congress: “Education policy decisions are best made at the level closest to the actual teaching and learning situation.”