CIPA and Monitoring the Connected Classroom

CC BY 2.0-licensed collaboration by Ben Grey.

Parents and legislators share a concern that inappropriate material might make its way into schools where young children could consume it. The internet, with its open nature and the ease with which it connects people with information, has aggravated that fear. To that end, Congress enacted the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in 2000. It requires that schools and libraries that receive discounts for internet access through the E-Rate program filter their connections to block pornography, monitor the online activities of minors, and educate minors about appropriate online behavior.

Today, schools not only provide pupils a connection in the classroom, but are increasingly providing devices like tablets and laptops, and sometimes mobile data connections that allow students to connect to the internet wherever they are. CIPA was designed to keep obscene materials out of view at schools — and on what might be a student’s only connection to the internet. Achieving that goal is significantly more difficult given today’s technology landscape.

Does CIPA lead to over-filtering of potentially beneficial content?

CIPA itself applies only to certain schools and libraries, and its filtering requirements focus on sexually-explicit material. Although enacted more than a decade ago, the public’s concern about children’s exposure to such inappropriate material has not waned. A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center found that 47% of parents were “very concerned about their child’s exposure to inappropriate content through the internet or cell phones.” Despite this concern, internet filtering by schools and public libraries is contentious. A number of organizations, including the American Library Association and the Washington State ACLU have expressed concerns about over-filtering of the internet. Over-filtering potentially deprives students of access to materials with legitimate educational value. Monitoring of this sort may normalize the practice for students and chill their intellectual discovery by discouraging students from visiting certain websites or saying certain things, merely because a school administrator is known to disapprove of a given topic or viewpoint.

Online, students may research political views unpopular in their town, read books banned by the local school library, or enjoy entertainment considered risqué by the local schools. One need only scroll a bit on Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks during a media event to get an idea of the sort of media that some might find inappropriate for children — from music videos to Hollywood movies to comic books — and that a school administrator might want to filter or take a student to task for viewing, sharing, or even searching for.

Further, this monitoring can normalize the practice for young children, getting them accustomed to having their behavior surveilled. When constant monitoring becomes a part of every day life for young children, they may learn to expect and accept such monitoring and the practice of having their actions filtered, watched, and approved (or not). This acceptance may lead children to conform to the standards of those doing the monitoring.

This may have an outsized effect on children from low-income families, who may rely on school and library internet access. Five million of the twenty-nine million households with school-aged children in the United States do not have regular access to broadband internet connections.

Have technology innovations outpaced CIPA?

But technology and how we use it has changed dramatically since CIPA was passed sixteen years ago. While in 2001, only about half of households with children had computers and only 42% had internet access, by 2013 78% of households had broadband internet connections. That same year, the Pew Research Center found that 95% of teens use the internet and that 25% of teens mostly accessed the internet through their cell phones.

CIPA, with its focus on internet connections provided in schools and libraries to desktop computers is being left behind in a world of lightweight laptops, tablets, and smartphones with 4G data connections. Increasingly, students have access to the internet outside their school and library. Often, they have access at home to a broadband connection, and many businesses provide their customers with free Wi-Fi. But even when the conversation is limited to school-provided connections, students now take their school devices home with them, and schools sometimes even provide students with mobile data plans.

This change in how and where students use their school-provided devices has not changed parents’ worries about inappropriate material online. What it has done, however, is likely take the students’ internet connections largely outside the purview of CIPA. Students are using school-provided devices, and school-provided mobile internet connections, at home, in cafes, at parks, and anywhere else they may want to get some work done, chat with their friends, or search for things.

Should CIPA be updated?

But modernizing laws like CIPA to allow for filtering of these sorts of devices and internet connections is dangerous. For students in households without an internet connection, such a policy choice would restrict their options only to school-provided devices, the dangers of which — over filtering, chilling intellectual pursuits, and normalizing monitoring — are significant. Monitoring internet connections outside of school may also increase the odds of discovering private information about the student, like the student’s sexual orientation, or conversations between the student and friends or parents. Additionally, schools could end up monitoring a user of the device besides the student, such as a sibling or a parent who borrows a laptop after the student goes to bed. Or, school monitoring of connections outside school grounds may be more likely to uncover private activities occurring within the student’s home — a problem that some schools have already faced.

Many parents certainly worry about their children getting access to inappropriate material online, and CIPA may have been a reasonable way to address that concern when it was passed. The devices we use, and the way we use the internet, have changed drastically since then. Updating CIPA, or replacing it to govern these new devices and connections being used by students could do more harm than good. Keeping pornography out of student’s schoolrooms is important, but filtering and monitoring student’s internet activity around town and at home blurs the role of school administrators.