Internet Content Filtering

Internet content filtering uses software programs, available since the mid-1990s, that filter or restrict the amount and/or type of content that users have access to when surfing the Internet. This entry briefly describes the growing usage of these programs and discusses the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires use of filters.

Background

Early filters on the market relied largely on keyword blocking, now regarded as a simplistic and ineffective way to filter content. The early filters were designed for parents who wished to control the content their children could access on the Internet. Increased demand for the technology precipitated an improvement, as many filter products soon began blocking entire Web sites when a user encountered a key word or key phrase.

The expansion of the customer base to include schools, libraries, and businesses caused the function of Internet filters to become even more sophisticated, though far from perfect. Some employers, including school boards, relied on filters and other types of software to prevent their employees from engaging in non–work-related activities at work.

Federal Law

In December 2000, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) was signed into law as the latest chapter in a long battle waged by Congress to regulate children’s access to content on the Web. CIPA was a provision conditioning federal subsidies on the use of Internet content filters, but it was different from previous failed legislation in that it imposed no criminal penalties.

Among other things, CIPA added the filtering mandate to e-rate subsidies administered by the Federal Communications Commission. The e-rate was implemented to assist schools and libraries in obtaining telecommunications and Internet access at discounted rates. The funds were made available through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Library Services and Technology Act, programs that affected Internet access in public schools and libraries, respectively. The amendment represented a combination of proposals submitted in both the 105th and 106th congresses.

CIPA required that schools and libraries receiving funding must adopt and implement “technology protection” measures on all computers with Internet access. Specifically, each school or library must verify that it has adopted and implemented an Internet safety policy and installed Internet content filters to block Internet access to obscenity, child pornography, and material harmful to minors. To comply with CIPA requirements, the policy of each school or library shall address the following:

(i) access by minors to inappropriate matter on the Internet and World Wide Web; (ii) the safety and security of minors when using electronic mail, chat rooms, and other forms of direct electronic communications; (iii) unauthorized access, including socalled “hacking,” and other unlawful activities by minors online; (iv) unauthorized disclosure, use, and dissemination of personal identification information regarding minors; and (v) measures designed to restrict minors’ access to materials harmful to minors. (CIPA, 2000, 47 U.S.C. § 254 (h))

Pursuant to CIPA’s provisions, school boards, educational agencies, and/or officials responsible for administration of schools are required to provide reasonable public notice and conduct at least one public meeting to address their proposed Internet safety policies. In addition, school boards and educational officials must verify that they are enforcing the operation of blocking technology during the use of their schools’ computers by minors.

Filters are required for all users on all access terminals regardless of the number of computers with Internet access that a school or library provides. However, when adults are using Internet terminals, CIPA allows filters to be configured to avoid blocking images that merely are “harmful to minors” but not obscene. Authorized persons may disable the blocking or filtering measures during any use by adults to enable them to have access for bona fide research or other lawful purposes. The statute defines minors as anyone who has not attained the age of 17. Some high school students will be classified as adults, and school officials should be careful not to allow use of filters to block their access to information. To be sure, Internet content filtering software is much improved from the mid-1990s, but it is still far from perfect and ill-equipped to supplant the discretion of the educator.

Court Cases

While CIPA has fared better than previous legislation, it has not gone unchallenged. American Library Association v. United States (2002) focused on the funding conditions that related to public libraries rather than schools. A federal trial court in Pennsylvania held that CIPA’s filtering requirements for public libraries were unconstitutional because Internet access in public libraries was a designated public forum and that filtering requirements were an effort to exclude certain speech selectively from the forum.

On further review in United States v. American Library Association (2003), the Supreme Court reversed the finding that CIPA exceeded Congress’s spending power to impose conditions on federal programs. The Court noted that the government did not create a designated public forum by providing Internet access in public libraries and that CIPA’s provisions regarding the disabling of filters were a modest restriction on speech. Chief Justice Rehnquist specifically pointed out that the use of Internet filters was not unconstitutional, because libraries normally exercise great discretion in selecting books for their collections and do not traditionally include pornography in their stacks. The majority deemphasized the First Amendment challenge as evidenced by the fact that it regarded the library’s decision to use filtering software as “a collection decision, not a restraint on private speech” (p. 209, note 4).

The upshot of the unsuccessful challenge of CIPA and filters in American Library Association is that litigation filed by, or on behalf of, students or other school personnel such as teachers is unlikely to survive, because public library patrons, in general, enjoy more freedom to express themselves than children. It is interesting to note that in the trial court’s disposition of the case, there was no challenge to the general requirement that recipients of funds create Internet safety policies. This is instructive insofar as the lesson is that educators should use their policies in conjunction with filters as they aim to educate, rather than punish, Internet users. Such an approach can give school officials and librarians the tools that they need to educate students and patrons on appropriate use of the Internet in public settings.

Mark A. Gooden

See also Acceptable Use Policies; Children’s Internet Protection Act; Electronic Communication; Electronic Document Retention; Technology and the Law; United States v. American Library Association

Further Readings

  • Ayre, L. B. (2004). History and development of filters. Library Technology Reports, 40(2), 8–25. 

Legal Citations

  • American Library Association v. United States, 201 F. Supp.2d 401 (E.D. Pa. 2002). 
  • Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000, P.L. 106–554, codified at 20 U.S.C. § 9134 and 47 U.S.C. § 254(h). 
  • United States v. American Library Association, 539 U.S. 194 (2003).