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I work for the 2nd largest school district in Washington State, specifically in the Special Education department.

I am a secretary who, under the category of "other duties as assigned" handles a great deal of tech support for our department.  Friday I learned that our federally mandated internet filtering software is going to cost us thousands of dollars because of one blocked web site.

The site in question, http://www.ip-relay.com allows anyone with an internet connection to place TTY (teletypewriter) phone calls without having a teletypewriter or specialized phone line. This would allow our students to contact parents, job resources, etc. whether the receiving party uses TTY themselves or not.

This web site is blocked under the category, "chat". My only recourse is to send a review to N2H2, the company that produces the Bess software, and ask them to review the site to put it in a different category. However, chat is probably the category this site will stay in.  Chat is also an appropriate category for our school district to filter. So, we're up a creek.

As far as I know, our school district does not have the option to enable sites on an individual basis, but I am investigating.

If this is not resolved we are looking at spending thousands yearly to install and maintain TTY lines because of blocking/filtering software. I am totaling the exact amount to present to the executive director of tech services in hopes that our school district will be able remedy the situation. This time the web filter has gone too far and I'm pissed.

Unfortunately we can't just dump Bess.  In this process, I've pulled up some startling revelations regarding federally mandated programs that are supposed to protect our children from "inappropriate content".

Peacefire, an advocate for unfettered filtering had this to say about my school's filtering software:



Double standards for conservative anti-gay sites

In May 2000, Peacefire anonymously created several "anti-gay" Web pages on free sites such as GeoCities, each site consisting entirely of quotes taken from the Web site of a prominent conservative group such as Focus on the Family. Using anonymous HotMail accounts, we submitted each of these pages to N2H2 for review. N2H2 agreed to block all four nominated pages as "hate speech".

We then told N2H2 that four prominent right-wing Web sites were the sources of all the anti-gay quotes on the four Web sites that we created, and asked whether those sites would be blocked as well. N2H2 did not respond, and did not block the four conservative groups' home pages.

The archives of our correspondence with N2H2 during this experiment, and the records of where we found the quotes used to create the anti-gay "bait" pages, are online at http://www.peacefire.org/BaitAndSwitch/.




Other blocked sites throughout BESS's history have included (links are not available because most have changed since Peacefire's report):

Amnesty International
Illinois Federation for Human Rights
Breast Cancer Legislation Page
Casa Alianza, a site about the plight of street children in Central America
Friends of Sean Sellers, an anti-death-penalty site about a man executed in 1999 for murders he committed at age 16.

Unfortunately, the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) mandates that schools and libraries that receive federal funding use internet blocking or filtering software.

Within CIPA was a mandated study upon the effectiveness of technology at addressing the "need" to block objectionable content.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) completed this study in 2003.  Comments that contributed to this study included:



"Most of our students feel that filtering software blocks important information, and many feel discouraged from using the Internet by the difficulties they face in accessing educational material."

As indicated by government witnesses, every filtering software product demonstrated excluded between 6 percent and 15 percent of protected speech.

"...this experience caused frustration for a program in Missouri that furnishes teachers with laptops for the specific purpose of preparing lessons at home.  The technology in these schools often blocks access to web sites pre-selected by teachers.  Teachers in these schools usually discover the blocked web sites during a lesson, forcing them to react quickly and find new, suitable content."




The NTIA study concluded with the following reccomendations:

(1) additional training on the full use of technology protection measures

(2) new legislative language that would clarify CIPA's existing "technology protection measure" language to ensure that technology protection measures include more than just blocking and filtering technology.

I could find no information suggesting these changes have been considered for CIPA.  So, for the time being, schools and libraries that want federal funds must use "blocking or filtering software" which is demonstrably violating free speech every day.

I look forward to a day when we don't have to decide whether to dump our filtering software (and a portion of federal funding) or shell out $$ for ageing clunky infrastructure (TTY is sooo last-generation).  I look forward to a day when my efforts to do tech support research are not blocked under the category, "message boards".  I look forward to a system that teaches students about the ups and downs of internet content rather than blacklisting it.

I know, I'm way too optimistic.

Originally posted to faedrake on Sat Sep 17, 2005 at 10:20 AM PDT.

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