Friday, November 26, 2010

Ethics and Internet Censorship

The first amendment of the United States Constitution awards citizens with the freedom of speech and expression. However, the amendment does not protect every form of speech. Specifically, it does not protect against obscene speech, defamation, or incitement of panic (ie. yelling "fire" in a crowded room).

The Internet has made access to all types of information very easy. While the first amendment ensures that adults have a right to both post and access websites that include pornography or hate speech, the issue is complicated by childrens' access to the internet. Most people feel that it is unethical to allow children access to pornographic or obscene material and that it should be censored. However,since it is currently impossible to check proof of age via the computer, the censoring of the material would mean that it would be censored for adults also. Civil rights activists generally argue against the restriction, saying that parents need to be responsible for monitoring what their children access. Those who believe that information should be censored believe that it is impossible to for parents to monitor their children because they are not always present and because pornographic or obscene material is sometimes inadvertently accessed while looking for apppropriate material.

The government has tried to regulate the issue on several occasions. In 1995, the government passed the Communications Decency Act (CDA), aimed to protect children from online pornography. However, critics argued that the act had broad language and vague definition of indecency. In 1997, the Communications Decency Act was found unconstitutional. Then, in 1998, the government passed the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). It applied to communication for commercial purposes and imposed penalties for exposing minors to harmful material on the web ( In 2004, it was found unconstitutional.

"The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) is a federal law enacted by Congress to address concerns about access to offensive content over the Internet on school and library computers. CIPA imposes certain types of requirements on any school or library that receives funding for Internet access or internal connections from the E-rate program – a program that makes certain communications technology more affordable for eligible schools and libraries. In early 2001, the FCC issued rules implementing CIPA. Schools and libraries subject to CIPA may not receive the discounts offered by the E-rate program unless they certify that they have an Internet safety policy that includes technology protection measures. The protection measures must block or filter Internet access to pictures that are: (a) obscene, (b) child pornography, or (c) harmful to minors (for computers that are accessed by minors). Before adopting this Internet safety policy, schools and libraries must provide reasonable notice and hold at least one public hearing or meeting to address the proposal. Schools subject to CIPA are required to adopt and enforce a policy to monitor online activities of minors. Schools and libraries subject to CIPA are required to adopt and implement an Internet safety policy addressing: (a) access by minors to inappropriate matter on the Internet; (b) the safety and security of minors when using electronic mail, chat rooms, and other forms of direct electronic communications; (c) unauthorized access, including so-called “hacking,” and other unlawful activities by minors online; (d) unauthorized disclosure, use, and dissemination of personal information regarding minors; and (e) measures restricting minors’ access to materials harmful to them." (

As a result of CIPA, most schools and libraries utilize some sort of Internet filter. These filters work in different ways but, most commonly, they generally block access to websites by blocking specific website addresses, blocking keywords that are associated with unacceptable websites, and/or utilizing dynamic content filtering, which uses artificial intelligence to analyze the website immediately before it is displayed. But, because none of these filtering options is full proof, most schools and libraries also require users to sign an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) that clearly delineates acceptable behavior when searching the Internet.

But, as Doug Johnson's website so perfectly states: "Schools in which students consistently practice safe and ethical behaviors don’t just happen. The relative newness of the Internet itself and almost daily new resources on it lead to uncertainty about its use by both students and teachers. Just having an Acceptable Use Policy, an Internet filter and a set of restrictions as long as one’s arm, does not insure students will use the Internet well.

A good approach to teaching ethical values in relation to internet searching should:
  1. Articulate personal values. Talk to your students about what you believe to be ethical conduct online. Set clear limits about what is allowed and what is not allowed. Be knowledgeable about your school’s Acceptable Use Policy. Make sure your labs, libraries and display lists and have available handouts of conduct codes.
  2. Build student trust. In the example above, I hope that Ms. Hanson gave Jennifer the benefit of the doubt that accessing the page was accidental and used the incident to teach some strategies about using clues in search result findings to discriminate between relevant and non-relevant sites. Using humor and understanding will go far in helping lessen student anxiety. All educators should make it a goal to build the willingness of their students to discuss ethical dilemmas with them.
  3. Allow students personal use the Internet. If the Internet computers are not being used for curricular purposes, you should allow students to research topics of personal interest (that are not dangerous or pornographic, of course), send email to friends, etc. The best reason for allowing this is that students are far less likely to risk loss of Internet privileges if that means losing access to things that they enjoy.
  4. Reinforce ethical behaviors and react to non-ethical behaviors. Technology use behaviors should be treated no differently than other behaviors - good or bad - and the consequences of such behaviors should be the same. It is important not to overreact to incidents of technological misuse. If a student was caught reading Playboy would you take away all his or her reading privileges?
  5. Model ethical behaviors. All of us learn more from what others do than what they say. The ethical conduct we expect from our students, we ourselves must display. Verbalization of how we personally make decisions is a very powerful teaching tool. It’s useless to lecture about intellectual property when we as adults use pirated software!
  6. Create environments that help students avoid temptations. Computer screens that are easily monitored (no pun intended), passwords not written down or left easily found, and getting into the habit of logging out of secure network systems all help remove the opportunities for technology misuse. Our simple presence is a far more effective means of assuring good behavior than any filtering software.
  7. Encourage discussion of ethical issues. “Cases,” whether from news sources or from actual events from your students’ experiences, can provide superb discussion starters and should be used when young people are actually learning computer skills. Children need practice in creating meaningful analogies between the virtual world and the physical world. How is reading other people’s email without their permission like and unlike reading their physical mail?
  8. Design practice activities on making good ethical choices. Direct teaching of ethics should be a part of your information literacy curriculum. The Allen (Texas) Independent School District has incorporated a program called “Chip and Friends” into its schools. The curriculum includes an hour-long videotape that uses puppets to teach little kids right and wrong online. Deborah Maehs, LMS, from Kingfisher Middle School, Kingfisher OK, offers a plagiarism-prevention plan in workshops for her staff that includes laying the foundation of technology ethics, examining the assignment’s purpose, and teaching the writing process.
  9. Stress the consideration of principles rather than relying on a detailed set of rules. Although sometimes more difficult to enforce in a consistent manner, a set of a few guidelines rather than lengthy set of specific rules is more beneficial to children in the long run. By applying guidelines rather than following rules, young learners engage in higher level thinking processes and internalize behaviors that will continue into their adult lives. Think how wonderfully the Golden Rule applies to so many situations. Children who have internalized such ethical concepts can make good choices whether in the classroom, on the playground, or at home.
  10. Help children understand that ethical behaviors are in their own long-term best interest. Rules of society exist because they tend to make the world a safer, more secure, and more opportunity-filled place.
  11. Assess children’s understanding of ethic concepts. Technology use privileges should not be given until an individual has demonstrated that he or she knows and can apply ethical standards and school policies. Schools need to test appropriate use prior to students gaining online privileges such as email accounts or Internet access. Teachers or librarians should keep evidence of testing on file in case there is a question of whether there has been instruction on appropriate use.
  12. Educate parents about ethical technology use. Through school newsletters, talks at parent organization meetings, and through school orientation programs, librarians can inform and enlist the aid of parents in teaching and enforcing good technology practices.
  13. Be personally knowledgeable about the ethical and safety issues surrounding Internet use. Keep your eyes peeled for articles and stories in both professional journals and the news. New ethical situations regarding schools and technology seem to appear everyday. A current bibliography of books, periodical articles, and websites can be found at .
Ethical instruction needs to be ongoing. A single lesson, a single incident, or a single curriculum strand will not suffice. We must integrate ethical instruction into every activity that uses technology. Good teaching is an ongoing process even, or perhaps especially, in the virtual world." (


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