The federal governments E-rate school technology discount program has never been easy and, true to form, lawmakers added still another wrinkle in the waning hours of the 106th Congress.
Last month, Congress approved language that makes Internet filtering a federal mandate for school computers with Internet access. The provision, which was slipped into an omnibus spending bill, applies to K-12 schools receiving E-rate discounts and other federal technology grants.
Its the Law The bill, which became law Dec. 21, says schools must adopt technology that "blocks or filters" visual depictions that are obscene, child pornography or harmful to minors. Schools also must implement an "Internet safety policy" addressing issues such as chat room safety, unauthorized access and unauthorized disclosure of personal information.
Since its launch in 1998, E-rate has committed $3.65 billion in discounts to about 50,000 schools. Many of those schools have tapped resellers and integrators to provide networking and other Internet access gear. But most of those solutions providers are in the dark when it comes to the filtering requirement, which could well end up in their laps.
"Its so new that most resellers arent aware of it," says Ronald Sheps, education market manager at Westcon Group, a Tarrytown, N.Y., distributor.
Ambiguity Lurks But on the other hand, solutions providers have "a tremendous opportunity to help schools become compliant with the new regulations," Sheps says. That could mean anything from consulting on security issues to selecting and installing filtering technology. As for the latter, Westcon offers products from companies including CacheFlow, Check Point Technologies Ltd., Intrusion.com and Lucent Technologies.
But resellers addressing the federal filtering requirement face a certain amount of ambiguity. For example, the law is unclear on the amount of time schools—and their contractors—will have to adopt the security measures. Some elements of the law appear to have different deadlines. The Internet safety policy is to go into effect 120 days after enactment of the law—April 14. But other elements of the law are tied to the first program-funding year following enactment. Based on that formula, the key date for E-rate recipients would be July 1.
"Not all of the time-line requirements in this bill are clear," reports the Consortium for School Networking, which advocates Internet use in schools but not mandatory filtering.
Figuring It Out Another source of confusion and controversy is the filtering software itself.
Critics of mandatory Internet filtering claim that it is a form of government censorship, and that current software is incapable of meeting the exacting demands of the First Amendment.
"The problem with these regulations is that they impose an impossible task on schools and libraries—blocking constitutionally unprotected speech while allowing through the protected speech," says ACLU attorney Ann Beeson, who is currently working on a legal challenge to the new requirements.
"Thats just not technologically possible. These programs always end up both underfiltering [passing through porn sites] and overfiltering [blocking protected speech]," Beeson adds.
Filtering requirements also present problems. Most common filtering systems are notoriously easy to circumvent, and user-friendly applications for automatically defeating them are regularly circulated online. In addition, some public servers allow users to avoid filters by forwarding copies of Web sites via e-mail.
Some clarification is on the way, however. The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees E-rate, is expected later this month or early next month to propose regulations for complying with the filtering law. Congress has tasked the FCC with publishing a final rule no later than April 20.
Schools, meanwhile, are attempting to decipher the governments directive as best they can to stay within the law. "I think people are still trying to figure out what the law says," adds Liza Kessler, senior policy counsel at Leslie Harris & Associates, an Internet policy firm.
With the Feds fuzzy mandate, schools and their partners are in for quite a lesson.