Web filtering is undoubtedly an essential when it comes to school cybersecurity. However, when the service is not set up correctly or a number of blocked categories is way too high, it starts to annoy both staff, and kids. Let’s see how to use web filtering to stay safe out there on the internet and make full use out of it.
Starting with the basics, it makes sense to remind ourselves what CIPA is. The Children’s Internet Protection Act, signed into law in 2000, is a document that regulates the exposure of inappropriate content to children. To be precise, the content that shall be filtered or blocked is divided into 3 groups: obscenity, child pornography & content harmful to minors. To receive funding, an educational institution must follow the guidelines of the act. The easiest way to comply with it is to purchase a web filtering solution. Needless to say, K-12 schools must be CIPA compliant to use E-Rate discounts, but those schools and libraries that do not receive the fundings do not have this obligation.
Web filtering solutions work on a DNS level, blocking all unwanted websites: both malicious ones with viruses lurking around, and all kinds of explicit content. In a nutshell, the DNS system matches IP addresses and the names of the websites working as a phonebook of the Internet. DNS filtering, however, also categorizes the website to see if it belongs to any restricted groups. This part is usually customizable: you choose which type of sites you want gone (or vice versa – you create an Allow list, which contains only the resources you want your students, staff & guests to see, and everything else is blocked), and leave it be.
Now, here’s the main question – how can web filtering possibly be of harm for the kids? It protects them from things their minds are not ready for, it saves them from being hacked. However, sometimes blocking way too much content might limit the kids’ learning process. CIPA clearly states that content “harmful to minors” must be blocked, which sometimes is read as “block everything” by adults. Mary Beth Hertz, the art/tech teacher and technology coordinator at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, a public high school in West Philadelphia, shared an opinion on blocking content for kids: “We limit their opportunities to succeed, explore their passions, and discover their strengths and talents.”