Complying with Federal Law for Safe Internet Use

by Nancy Willard

School districts receiving E-rate funding now are required to comply with the Children's Internet Protection Act, or CIPA, mandating they monitor how students are using the Internet.

The new federal law requires the districts to use computer software that will protect against access to visual depictions that are obscene, constitute child pornography or could harm minors.

CIPA also requires every school district develop an Internet safety plan that addresses access to inappropriate material, safety and security of students when using electronic communications, unauthorized access and other unlawful online activities, and unauthorized disclosure, use and dissemination of personal information regarding students.

Inappropriate Access

School officials probably will be attracted to the idea of using computer software to help them ensure safe and responsible use of the Internet. But school districts that rely primarily on blocking technologies may place students in a position of greater vulnerability and risk at those inevitable times when students have unsupervised access through a system without blocking. As educators, our primary focus should be to help students develop their own filtering and blocking practices.

Just as fenced play yards are an appropriate environment for young children, clearly we must keep elementary school students in safe places on the Internet and supervise any occasional access to the World Wide Web. Students at this age do not have the necessary knowledge or skills to independently use the Internet in a safe manner.

But fenced yards are an inappropriate environment for teen-agers. Secondary school students use the Internet in many settings. They need to know how to independently avoid Internet garbage and what to do if they have gotten "mouse-napped" and cannot get out of a porn site. They also need to know about safe communication skills, how to protect their personal privacy and how to recognize, deal with and report sexual solicitation. They should know how to protect themselves from Internet scams and to recognize problems of Internet addiction.

Protection Measures

Secondary students need to have a clear understanding of the expectations for their behavior when using the Internet in school and be held accountable for such use.

Newer technology protection measures can promote responsible choice and ensure accountability. These technologies work by filtering incoming traffic and warning of the possibility that the material may be inappropriate or by filtering all Internet traffic and reporting instances of possible violations to the administrator. Such technologies meet the CIPA requirements and should be considered as alternatives to the older blocking technologies.

When schools use blocking technologies, local officials essentially are turning over control to third parties to determine the appropriateness of material for students. No independent mechanism is in place to ensure that the companies are making blocking decisions in accord with appropriate educational standards.

Experienced Internet educators estimate that blocking software prevents them and their students from accessing perfectly appropriate material approximately 20 percent of the time. Such overblocking interferes with effective learning. Educators have far greater experience and expertise in determining content appropriateness than the staff at software companies. Schools that use such blocking technologies should be careful to select and implement them in a manner that will protect students' constitutional rights to access information and foster effective educational use of the Internet.

Unauthorized Activities

Because teens and pre-teens do engage in irresponsible activities when using the Internet, school districts have a duty to teach students about their rights and responsibilities as cyber citizens. They need to understand what a copyright is. They need to understand legal issues related to computer security violations (hacking), the spread of viruses and Internet scams. They must understand the difference between free speech and harmful speech.

District policies related to the dissemination, use and disclosure of student information on the Internet also are necessary. Policies should address disclosure of student information on school Web sites, student disclosure of personal information about themselves or others, and staff dissemination of confidential student information via e-mail.

The disclosure of student information to companies on the Internet is especially problematic. The Federal Trade Commission advises teachers they can act in lieu of parents to grant permission for children under the age of 13 to provide personal information on commercial Web sites. With this in mind, school districts might want to establish strict policies related to the use, disclosure and dissemination of students’ personal information and ensure these policies are in accord with the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, relevant state privacy laws and the new Student Privacy Protection Act.

Nancy Willard is an attorney and director of Responsible Netizen, Center for Advanced Technology in Education, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97405. E-mail: She also is the author of “Supporting the Safe and Responsible Use of the Internet: A Children's Internet Protection Act Planning Guide,” available at