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Internet filters shouldn't bring religious bias to schools

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By ROBYN E. BLUMNER

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 10, 2002


It's a partnership as natural as Adam and Eve: Organizations devoted to promoting conservative religious beliefs are linking up with Internet filtering software to sculpt the world of cyberspace into a Christian-friendly environment.

The Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association promotes its American Family Filter by claiming the product "stands apart from other blocking software, employing a uniquely Christian approach to our content filtering."

A promotion for the MStar.Net Internet provider says it will "help maintain LDS (Mormon) values when you use the Internet." An Internet service named 7.11.Net/Global Internet Ministries claims to not only filter out pornography, profanity and violence but also uphold "Biblical standards."

None of this on its face is worthy of much comment. Certainly software developers and Internet providers have the right to offer a service that will appeal to a conservative religious audience. If they want to dump all information on safe sex practices into an offensive sex category that the filter will automatically block, so be it. The problem arises when those same religiously grounded filtering standards find their way onto public school computers.

In a research report titled Filtering Software: The Religious Connection, Nancy Willard, director of the Responsible Netizen Center for Advanced Technology in Education at the University of Oregon, documents a suspiciously cozy relationship between a number of filtering software companies and conservative religious groups. Her conclusions suggest that some popular filtering products may have a religious-right bias. Yet those same wares are being used by and marketed to schools for their classroom and library computers.

Willard found that the Bsafe Online filtering service, which targets schools and libraries, grew out of American Family Online, a part of the American Family Association. The AFA says its mission is "to motivate and equip citizens to change the culture to reflect Biblical truth." She also reports that S4F Technologies Inc. markets to schools as EduGuard. Yet S4F "appears to have started as a religious (Internet provider) known as Family Connect," said the report. The Godly Business Woman magazine recommends Family Connect as "the Internet standard for Christian families."

Willard also found that Symantec Corp., which has a substantial presence in schools, blocks graphic sexual imagery right along with information on sexual orientation. The company's product is used by religious Internet services such as "What Would Jesus View," and "7.11.Net/Global Internet Ministries," which tell their customers that blocking is done in accordance with Christian values.

In 2000, Congress made sure nearly every computer in a public school is filtered when it passed the Children's Internet Protection Act. As a condition of receiving federal money for Internet wiring and other technology enhancements, the law requires schools and libraries to install a "technology protection measure" on computers to prevent minors from accessing materials deemed "harmful." But the act doesn't prescribe the kind of filters schools must use, and the vacuum has been filled by clumsy products that tend to block substantially more than is legally required.

Last year, Consumer Reports gave a big thumbs down to some of the most widely used filtering software programs because so many of them blocked valuable Web sites on controversial subjects and also allowed graphic sexual material to slip through. The magazine's analysis raised serious First Amendment questions, since the government's use of faulty, overinclusive filtering programs impermissibly limits a student's access to information. (A challenge to the law's application to library computers is scheduled to be heard by an appellate court in Philadelphia on March 25.)

Willard's research adds yet another layer of constitutional concern. Sloppy filtering due to imprecise technology is one thing. But what if some filters are purposely designed to promote a religious or ideological agenda? Filtering software companies generally refuse to disclose their blocking criteria or list of blocked sites as a proprietary trade secret. That means school districts buying these products have no way of knowing whether there is a built-in bias.

School administrators may believe they have control over filtering programs on school computers because they can choose which categories to block and which to let through. But it is primarily the initial act of placing Web sites into categories that determines what students will have access to. These decisions should not be left to any private entity but particularly not ones whose raison d'etre is to get religion back into schools.

In addition to being a constitutional quagmire, filtering is no substitute for proper teacher supervision. Reasons enough for it to be expelled.

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