You can blame the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), passed by Congress last year over the violent objections of educators, civil libertarians and librarians. The election-year law takes control of children's online information lives away from schools, parents and local communities. Instead, CIPA requires all schools and libraries that want federal E-rate funds to help pay for Net access to install blocking and filtering software. This is the same dreary, censorious software that can't distinguish between porn sites and poetry passages, not to mention intelligently discriminate between breast-cancer education pages and breast-ogling sites.
Nearly half of all schools and libraries now use some sort of filtering software, according to research firm International Data Corp. N2H2 Corp.,the makers of Bess, has about 20 percent of this market, the Wall Street Journal reports. That means that Bess controls the Web choices of more than 12 million students kindergarten through high school, and the CIPA is expected to push those numbers much higher.
Now we learn that late last year, N2H2 began selling the data that Bess collects on children's Net and Web use. The information, called Class Clicks, is aggregated, says the company, meaning it can't be used to identify the habits of individual specific students, or even of specific schools. And Bess is a clever girl. Schools use the program as a gatekeeper, and nobody knows more than she does about where kids go, for how long, or which sites they try and access.
But for $15,000 a year, marketers and Web site operators can receive regular reports detailing exactly where kids are going on the Net, along with aggregate estimates of their ages and race. The company insists there's no way for users of this data to figure out precisely who the students are, but it isn't clear whether N2H2 or makers of the filtering programs know, or if so, what they are legally allowed to do with that information.
How do the info-peddlers feel about it? "This is a real nonissue for us," a spokesman for N2H2 told the Journal. "This information is so anonymous and vague."
But if it's so vague, why would anybody pay thousands of dollars for it? And it is definitely an issue for others, including the Electronic Privacy Center in Washington, whose general counsel, David Sobel, told the Journal: "Students just should not be contributing to marketing tools and subjected to profiling based on how they are using the educational tools of the Internet."
Nor, in fact, should anyone buy the notion that filtering software protects children. It doesn't. Statistically kids are in no danger on the Net. Their greatest source of harm comes from physical abuse from family members and people they know, according to U.S. Justice Department statistical abstracts on violence and the FBI Uniform Crime Report, and firearms and other accidents. Congress seems in no rush to block any of those dangers.
So far, just two clients have purchased the information N2H2 is selling. One is the New York-based education portal Big Chalk Inc. The other, strangely enough, is the U.S. DOD, which refused to tell the Journal what it plans to do with the data collected by Bess.
N2H2 says it began tracking kids' Net use in late 1999, believing the data might be useful to teachers and creators of youth-oriented websites. Last year, it began looking into other uses for this information, and began working with the marketing firm Roper Starch Worldwide to figure out what the two companies could sell.
According to the Journal, SurfControl PLC, another maker of blocking programs, said it doesn't collect data of any sort on its users' surfing habits and believes it would be inappropriate to do so.
Is this data-collection the kind of protection Congress had in mind when it compelled libraries and schools to install commercial censorship software, depriving parents, educators and local institutions and politicians of the right to make such choices?
Filtering software is a complex civil liberties problem on several levels, most unappreciated either by Congress or the general pubic:
- Most filtering programs don't disclose what they block or why, so the users have no real idea what level of protection is being offered. Parents think they are purchasing safety and morality, yet they have no idea what their children are being deprived access to.
- Blocking software doesn't protect kids, literally or morally. There is no evidence of any sort by any credible source that one single child is safer or more moral because of censorship technology installed on their computers, or because of limited access to the Net.
- Filtering software legitimizes censorship and invasion of privacy. Many parents buy filtering programs that permit them to re-trace the websites their children have visited. They aren't teaching kids morality but Orwellian intrusions of privacy, dignity, and, yes -- morality itself.
- Blocking sofware is an illusory technology. It permits the abdication of moral responsibility -- especially that of teachers and parents -- to supervise their children and provide moral direction.
What we have with Bess and CIPA is one more insight into the warped way American politicians exploit children while proclaiming that they're protecting their moral purity. William Bennett, our self-styled national "morals" czar, and a close adviser to President Bush, is a master at this, denouncing the immorality of music, TV, and the Net and Web and making millions off of books, calendars and stickers offering and celebrating "morally correct" stories for kids about hardworking bumblebees and frogs who can't wait to get to school.
Net use is statistically one of the safest things an American kid can do. When kids get in trouble online, it is usually adolescents drawn into powerful or obsessive relationships. Those are rare. Crime rates among the young have been dropping for years, and are now at their lowest levels in a half-century. Children are very rarely harmed as a result of going online. According to child safety experts, online safety rules are easy to learn and follow. So the idea of "protective" legislation is already spurious.
Moreover, even the sale of the aggregate behavior of children (almost always, says the Journal, without the knowledge of kids, parents or schools), has serious implications for privacy and free speech. It promises a future marked by ever-more-sophistiated digital tracking and eavesdropping. Obviously, aggregate figures can't be collected without access to individual statistics. What, exactly, is the boundary?
And once legitimized -- by the U.S. Congress, no less -- the notion of ever more specialized tracking of kids by business and government is now being built into the infrastructure of the Net as well as schools and libraries. It's an awful precedent, even though it's a "non-issue" to the corporation doing it. Even if Bess isn't tracking specific students or targeting specific schools -- yet -- who's to say that the next generation of software will do, or what a different company couldn't or wouldn't gather and sell, especially as Congress forgot to prohibit the marketing of this data in it's rush to "protect" kids from the Net.
Every significant law Congress has passed relating to speech and content on the Net, from the two Communications Decency Acts to the Sonny Bono and Digital Millenium Copyright Acts to CIPA has been offensive and menacing to privacy, free speech, and individual freedom to choose information. American kids seem much saner and more rational about technology than their so-called leaders and protectors. And this doesn't seem likely to get any better under the Bush administration, which has made the moral lives of children and the immoral content in TV, movies and on the Net a central campaign issue and policy priority.
The forced use of CIPA-mandated blocking (and tracking) software is bad enough, meaning that kids online have already relinquished much of their right to free speech, information choice and privacy. Selling the information that results takes away most of the rest of it, and is doubly appalling.