Safe and Responsible Use of the Internet: A Guide for Educators

By Nancy Willard, M.S., J.D.

Chapter 1. Introduction


The Internet has emerged in the last decade as an extremely important conduit for information and communications. The objective of schools is to prepare students for active and effective participation in society. The information and communication resources of the Internet have become an essential component of this preparation. Schools are uniquely positioned to serve as the primary vehicle through which young people can develop the knowledge, skills, and motivation to use the Internet in a safe, responsible, and effective manner.

Many schools have placed primary reliance on filtering software to address online safety concerns. It has always been recognized that filtering software is imperfect -- it neither blocks all material that should be blocked, and it frequently blocks access to perfectly appropriate material. There is a growing recognition of the fact that it is simply not possible to protect children with technological tools that are neither infallible, nor present on every Internet access device.

It is clearly time for public schools to shift their focus from a technological "quick-fix" approach to a more comprehensive education and supervision approach -- an approach that protects young people by preparing them to effectively deal with the concerns and dangers that are present on the Internet. By developing a comprehensive approach to address such concerns, schools can help young people develop effective filtering and blocking systems that will reside in the hardware that sits upon their shoulders.

And that is what this Guide is all about -- providing guidance for school districts in the development and implementation of a comprehensive education and supervision approach to assist students in gaining the knowledge, skills, and motivation to use the Internet in a safe and responsible manner.


In December 2000, Congress enacted the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA)[1]. CIPA requires that schools and libraries that are seeking certain federal funds for technology certify that they have installed a "technology protection measure" to protect against access to specified inappropriate material. Even prior to the enactment of CIPA, many school districts had responded to community concerns about online safety with the installation of commercial filtering software.

There are growing concerns related to reliance on commercial filtering software in public schools. Two events occurred in May 2002 that cast new light on the advisability and constitutionality of such reliance.

In early May, the National Research Council (NRC) released a report entitled Youth, Pornography and the Internet[2], which strongly advocated for the recognition that neither technology nor public policy are going to be able to effectively address the dangers and concerns present on the Internet. Rather, the NRC urged that the primary focus must be shifted to social and educational strategies.

In late May, the ruling was issued in a case that the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union brought challenging the constitutionality of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), ALA v. US[3]. While this ruling is not directly applicable to public schools, the findings and analysis lead to the conclusion that the use of commercial, proprietary-protected Internet filtering software in schools presents concerns that students are being unconstitutionally restricted from access to appropriate material on the Internet.

At the heart of the constitutional concerns is the fact that when school officials implement commercial filtering software, they are essentially delegating decision-making authority about what students can and cannot access on the Internet to commercial filtering software companies that are not making blocking decisions based on educational or local community standards, are protecting their criteria, keywords, blocking decision-making processes, and databases of blocked sites as confidential proprietary information, and have relationships with other clients, including conservative religious organizations and repressive third world governments, that may be influencing the blocking decision-making. With the use of these products, there is no local control, no public accountability, substantial evidence of viewpoint discrimination.

Concerns about the advisability and constitutionality of the use of commercial filtering software are discussed in brief in "Rational for a Comprehensive Approach" and in depth in "Constitutionality and Advisability of the Use of Commercial Filtering Software in U.S. Public Schools."

Core Components of a Comprehensive Approach

Focus on the Educational Purpose
Use of the district Internet system should directed to those activities which support education, enrichment, and career development, with the option of limited "open access" times. Districts must support the educational use of the system through professional development, technical and instructional support, Internet-based lesson plans and an educational web site.

The best way to promote the safe and responsible use of the Internet is to ensure that teachers are prepared to lead students on exciting, educationally enriching learning "adventures" on the Internet. When the computers are being used for such activities, the opportunity for misuse is significantly limited.

Clear Policy that is Well-Communicated
Students and staff should have a clear understanding of the kinds of activities that are and are not considered acceptable. Students and staff should be aware that they have a very limited expectation of privacy when they use the Internet at school. They should have a full and complete understanding of the degree to which their activities will be monitored, how this monitoring will occur, and the circumstances under which a specific investigation of their online activities will occur.

The policy should address access to inappropriate material, the safety and security of students when using electronic communications, unlawful and inappropriate activities, and the protection of student personal information. The policy should address responsibilities of both staff and students.

The policy should serve as the foundation for the district's education program regarding the safe and responsible use of the Internet -- not simply just another document included in the start-of-school informational packet.

Safe Internet Spaces for Younger Students
The primary focus for elementary students should be on maintaining a safe and secure environment. Elementary students should use in the Internet is an environment that specifically restricts their use to sites that have been pre-reviewed to determine their appropriateness and educational value. If it is ever necessary for a student to seek information on the more open Internet, such access must only occur with "over-the-shoulder" adult supervision. Elementary students should use electronic communications in a fully secure environment, such as a classroom e-mail account. Elementary students must know that there is the possibility that they may encounter material on the Internet that "yucky" and that if they ever have concerns about what they encounter, they should turn off the computer and tell a teacher. A variety of technologies can be used to assist in the establishment of safe Internet spaces.

Education About the Safe and Responsible Use
Teachers, administrators and students should receive instruction related to the safe and responsible use of the Internet. Education for students should be appropriate to their age and understandings. Young people should be empowered to independently handle a wide range of interactions and activities on the Internet that could be harmful to their safety and well being. Educating older students regarding how to avoid the inadvertent access of inappropriate material and appropriate, effective responses if they accidentally access such materials, especially if the site has "trapped" them and will not allow them to exit, is essential. Further, it is necessary to address why such materials are considered to be inappropriate. Additional safety concerns include being the target or recipient of sexual predation, hate group recruitment, invasion of personal privacy, Internet fraud and scams, harassment, stalking, and harmful speech.

We also must address other issues related to the responsible use of the Internet by young people. In addition to the intentional access of potentially harmful material, these issues include copyright infringement, plagiarism, computer security violations (hacking, spreading viruses), violation of privacy, Internet fraud and scams, harassment, stalking, and dissemination of harmful speech or other violent or abusive material. We must prepare young people to understand their responsibilities as Cybercitizens.

Supervision and Monitoring
Student use of the Internet should be supervised by teachers in a manner that is appropriate for the age of the students and circumstances of use. The type and level of monitoring is somewhat dependent on the circumstances of the school. Supervision and monitoring must be sufficient to establish the expectation that there is a high probability that instances of misuse will be detected and result in disciplinary action. When students are fully aware that there is a high probability that instances of misuse will be detected and result in disciplinary action, they are unlikely to take the risk of engaging in such misuse. The existence of effective monitoring, and student knowledge of such existence is generally sufficient deterrent for misuse.

In small schools with a limited number of students, limited number of computers, and low level of Internet traffic, an approach that involved staff supervision and staff review of Internet records will likely be sufficient to establish the expectation of high probability of detection of misuse. With larger schools, more students, more computers, and a higher level of traffic, supervision and staff review of Internet usage logs will likely not be sufficient to achieve a high probability that instances of misuse will be detected. This is where the use of a technology tool becomes an appropriate consideration. Technology tools allow for the more effective and efficient review of Internet usage and significantly enhances the probability that instances of misuse will be detected.

It is not possible for districts to enforce a wide range of individual family values when students are using the Internet in school. Districts can address parent concerns and support student Internet use in accord with personal family values by allowing parents to have access to their child's Internet use records upon request.

Appropriate Discipline
Misuse of the Internet by students should be addressed in a manner that makes use of the "teachable moment" both for the individual student and other students in the school. The focus of such instruction should be on the reasons for the rule -- the issues or concerns the rule is designed to address -- rather than a focus on disobedience. No student should ever disciplined for incidents that have occurred that are outside of the control of the student, such as the unintentional access of inappropriate material. No student should ever be disciplined for reporting that they have gotten into a dangerous or concerning online situation.

Continued Use of Filtering Software

While there are significant concerns regarding the advisability and constitutionality of the use of commercial filtering software, it is recognized that in some schools, districts, regions, and states it is not currently possible to discontinue such use. The primary focus of this Guide is to encourage a shift to a more comprehensive education and supervision approach to addressing concerns of the safe and responsible use of the Internet by students.

It is not necessary to terminate the use of filtering software to implement the recommendations contained in this Guide. However, after the recommendations have been implemented, it is probable that the continued use of filtering software will be found to be unnecessary. Alternative technologies are proposed for use, rather than commercial filtering software. It is likely that districts will ultimately find these technologies to be more effective in achieving the underlying objective of preparing students to make safe and responsible choices on the Internet, as well as to be cost effective.

Further, it is not recommended that a district terminate the use of filtering software prior to implementing many of the recommendations contained in this Guide. It can be anticipated that upon the removal of filtering software, some enterprising students will seek to explore their perceived new freedoms. Systems must be in place to prevent and address such "testing." These issues are addressed more fully in "Transition to a More Comprehensive Approach."

Compliance with CIPA

CIPA requires the use of a "technology protection measure" to "protect against access" to material defined by the statute as unacceptable[4]. Congress did not specify any particular type of technology protection measure. The NRC Report discussed a variety of technologies that the NRC noted can be used to "protect against access" to inappropriate material[5]. It is therefore assumed any of the technologies discussed by NRC as well as any newer technologies that might emerge would fulfill the CIPA technology protection measure requirement.

Alternatively, if Congress intended CIPA to require that school districts abdicate all decision-making authority about what students can and cannot access on the Internet to commercial filtering software companies are not and cannot be held publicly accountable, then the law is clearly unconstitutional.

The compliance issue is discussed in full in the chapter entitled "Compliance with the Children's Internet Protection Act." The alternative technology protection measures that are outlined in the NRC report are further described in the chapter entitled "Technology Protection Measures." This Guide seeks to assist school administrators in the development of a comprehensive approach to help young people gain the knowledge, skills, and self-control independently use the Internet in a safe and responsible manner and remain in compliance with CIPA.

Contents of the Guide

This Guide is set forth in five parts:

  • Part I contains introductory information and materials addressing the rationale and transition process.
  • Part II addresses the essential requirements for a Safe and Responsible Use of the Internet Plan. This plan follows the requirements contained in the Children's Internet Protection Act.
  • Part III provides insight into a variety of legal issues that are raised in the context of use of the Internet in school, including district liability, first amendment issues, harmful off-campus speech, copyright, public records and the like.
  • Part IV sets forth a variety of documents that can be modified for use by the district, including policy documents, regulations, guidelines, use agreements, and informational materials for parents and community members. Most importantly, this part contains a District Checklist for the Development of a Comprehensive Safe and Responsible Internet Use Plan that can facilitate auditing and planning. All of these documents are also provided online at the Responsible Netizen Institute web site in word processing format so that they can be used more effectively.
  • Part V contains a variety of externally created news articles and reports that are highly relevant to the issues presented in the Guide.

[1] 42 U.S.C. 254.
[2] NRC Report.
[3] ALA.
[4] ... (T)he operation of the Technology Protection Measure with respect to any of its computers with Internet access that protects against access through such computers to visual depictions that are -- (I) obscene; (II) child pornography; or (III) harmful to minors; ... 47 U.S.C. 254 (h)(5)(B)
TECHNOLOGY PROTECTION MEASURE.--the term 'Technology Protection Measure' means a specific technology that blocks or filters Internet access to (the prohibited material). 47 U.S.C. 254 (h)(7)(I) Emphasis added.
[5] NRC Report Chapter 12.

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