Protecting students from exposure to harmful online content
Most of the discussion over virtual schooling has focused on the irreparable damage that isolation inflicted on an entire generation of students; but it also exposed deep vulnerabilities in the barriers we’ve constructed between children and the darkest corners of the Internet.
Indeed, over the past two years, school districts have sent kids home with laptops and tablets in unprecedented numbers. Thousands of these devices and the internet connections that power them have been purchased through two federal subsidy programs overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) known as E-Rate and the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF). Giving students these devices has led to a dramatic increase in screen time and made it more difficult for parents to protect their children from exposure to objectively harmful online content. Congress and regulators have worked overtime trying to place guardrails around Big Tech that at once empower parents and stop the online predators that target children. But the success or failure of these efforts will depend largely upon the willingness of regulators to enforce the safeguards that Congress has put in place.
On the issues of online privacy and data security, we are charting new territory with legislation now pending in Congress; but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of tech usage by minors, we began laying a protective legal foundation decades ago, starting with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). The law requires school districts that take advantage of E-Rate or ECF dollars to follow internet safety policies and implement technology protection measures that block students from accessing pornography and other types of obscene material on school-issued devices. The FCC has rules requiring school districts to certify that the E-Rate and ECF devices they’re putting in kids’ hands are CIPA compliant.
CIPA compliance represents the lowest of low regulatory bars. And yet evidence has surfaced suggesting that some school districts are not complying with the law—leaving children exposed to the worst, most predatory parts of the internet. A 2021 survey revealed that only 71 percent of teachers polled could confirm that their districts had installed the type of online protection measures CIPA requires. While it is true that not all school-issued devices must comply with CIPA, we do know that they all end up in the hands of kids who don’t yet understand how dangerous the virtual world can be.
So what is going on with these federal programs? Has the law failed to keep up with technological change or do we need the FCC and school districts to step up their compliance efforts in light of this surge in new devices?
With respect to the law, CIPA itself is a narrow statute, and there is no reason why it should have failed the test of time and changed circumstances. Money flows to schools that need it, but that money is conditioned on compliance with a simple rule: keep the kids safe. The past 22 years of paradigm-shifting innovation since Congress passed CIPA have changed the world, but not that standard.
What has changed is the sophistication behind the threat. Algorithms piloted by Facebook, Tik Tok, and other digital platforms incentivize young users to document shocking—and unsettlingly adult—behavior, even as experts and congressional panels expose the havoc that content wreaks. Human traffickers, pedophiles, and drug dealers take advantage of their vulnerability with heartbreaking results. It’s a nightmare for parents, kids, and teachers alike, but remember—that nightmare lives on a screen. At least when it comes to federally funded devices, we can and should control whose eyeballs come under assault.
Contrary to what fearmongers in Washington say, CIPA does not require or authorize anyone to surveil students, and we have never suggested that this is the answer to keeping young people safe online. In fact, we have said the exact opposite because full surveillance would do more harm than good. But we owe it to parents and their kids to ensure that these covered laptops and tablets live up to the commonsense protections already enshrined in law while anticipating how threats will evolve with technology.
Last week we sent a letter to the organization the FCC uses to administer the E-Rate and ECF programs to ensure that every covered device that a school district puts in a student’s hand is CIPA compliant. School districts must also step up their efforts to ensure that students remain safe online. While some districts are exercising diligence with tech usage, others are taking a far too reckless approach to student safety.
But it’s important to remember that policymakers and educators can only do so much. The people closest to children have the most influence over their behavior, and it is their job to keep an eye on those screens—school-provided or not—to make sure the people on the other end of the connection have their children’s best interests at heart.
Marsha Blackburn is the senior senator from Tennessee and Brendan Carr is an FCC commissioner.
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