With the chance that Maine seventh- and eighth-graders will get portable computers they can use beyond the range of teacher or parent supervision, a rookie Republican state lawmaker has submitted legislation to force all school and library Internet connections to block access to pornographic sites and materials.
The proposal could run smack into opposition from librarians on First Amendment grounds and from critics of filtering software who say access could be denied to sites used for legitimate educational purposes – such as those pertaining to breast cancer.
But Rep. Brian Duprey of Hampden is undeterred.
“I’m concerned with what the kids see on the Internet,” Duprey told the Bangor Daily News.
Going door to door during his election campaign this fall, Duprey said, “I heard from parents that they are concerned. Kids know more than parents do about computers. They could be on sites that their parents wouldn’t know about.”
He proposes that the state – rather than local schools and libraries – pay for a filtering system that would cover the entire Maine School and Library Network, the system by which almost every public school and library connects to the Internet.
He said he does not have a cost estimate for his proposal yet.
Duprey said his legislation would affect only those computers to which minors have access. Teachers or librarians could override the filtering if necessary.
Since its inception, the school and library network has been unfiltered. However, many schools have taken advantage of filtering software from a private company available through the network.
“Currently we provide the pipes [to the Internet]; what people do about filtering is up to the individual school or library,” said Tom Welch, chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the network’s financing.
According to Ron Tehrani of N2H2 Inc., maker of the filtering software, the company already screens Internet connections for 70 percent of Maine schools.
There are two driving forces behind Duprey’s initiative. The first is Gov. Angus King’s effort to provide portable computing devices to seventh-graders that would have Internet access through the school and library network. The second is that some school districts want filtering but claim they cannot afford it.
Duprey probably will find himself in a dogfight over his proposal with librarians leading the attack.
The Maine Library Association is “absolutely opposed to any filtering of any kind,” said vice president Anne Davis, director of the Gardiner Public Library. “We’re against filtering because it impinges on people’s right to get information. We’re also opposed to it because local control is being taken away.”
Sen. Sharon Treat, D-Gardiner, who sponsored 1995 legislation buttressing the school and library network, said, “I’m a strong proponent of letting local communities set the standards. Some libraries say that filtering can cut out nonpornographic sites and legitimate sources of information.”
Though a supporter of local control, “I tend to err on the side of caution with kids,” said Duprey, who home-schools his three children.
His idea is not a new one.
Federal legislation passed by Congress this month and signed by President Clinton last week would bar local schools from using federal money to buy computer equipment and Internet access unless the equipment filters out any material that is obscene, pornographic or “harmful to minors.”
The legislation does not stop elementary or secondary schools from using state or locally raised money to purchase unfiltered computer equipment and Internet access. Federal funding comprises just 4 percent of K-12 educational spending in Maine.
The Maine School and Library Network is run by UNET, the University of Maine System’s network. Gerry Dube is UNET’s technical services director.
He explained that schools have three basic filtering options. Schools can install software such as Net Nanny on individual machines. They also can contract with a company to install in the school a server that contains the filter, which would act like a “front gate” for all the school’s Internet traffic.
This second option provides the greatest flexibility and local control of any filtering system, Dube said.
However, the cheapest method is to have all the school’s Internet traffic routed through an off-campus server owned by a filtering company, he said.
After many schools had already done this with N2H2 a few years ago, the company approached UNET about bulk filtering.
Wanting to stay out of the middle of the battle over censoring and contract negotiations, Dube said, UNET told N2H2 that it could set up some of its own servers in the midst of the UNET’s server clusters in Orono and Portland.
However, UNET did extract one concession from N2H2, Dube said. In order to set up its servers in UNET’s clusters, UNET required that the company give any school subsequently contracting with N2H2 the lowest price already available on the network. That currently is 50 cents per computer per month.
While UNET “accommodated” schools and N2H2, Dube is quick to state, the accommodation is not meant to suggest N2H2 supplies the best filtering software.
“We’ve never evaluated any filtering software,” Dube said.
According to N2H2’s Web site, in 1995 the Seattle-based company created the Bess Filtering System, the Internet’s first server-based filtering proxy network.
“Today, more schools use N2H2 than any other available filtering system,” according to the company. In 1999, more than 13.4 million students in North America viewed more than 4 billion Internet pages delivered through Bess.
Nonetheless, filtering can cause problems for those doing school research.
Davis of the Gardiner Public Library noted that some filters would block access to information about Middlesex County, Mass., because of the “sex” in Middlesex.
“There isn’t any great filtering software out there,” she said.
Welch of the Public Utilities Commission, who also serves on the task force refining the governor’s plan to give seventh-graders computers, said he would have no quarrel if Internet access for those machines was restricted by only allowing access to educational databases purchased by schools and libraries.
However, speaking as a private citizen, Welch said, “Part of living in this society is learning the distinction between what’s healthy and unhealthy, accurate and inaccurate, fact and fiction. I don’t think the state should be in the censoring business.”
Duprey counters, “I support censoring adult magazines from children. I support censoring adult films from children. And there is no difference when it comes to censoring adult Web sites on the Internet.”