Montana School Has Internet Filter Controversy

Students and trustees question the effectiveness of the Billings School District Internet filter, with some calling it an “obstruction to education.”

by Matt Hoffman, Billings Gazette / January 29, 2019
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(TNS) — Trustees raised concerns about School District 2’s internet filter Monday, about two weeks after a list of subjects nixed by filters hit social media.

The system appears to block sites associated with unsurprising categories like “adult content” and “academic fraud,” but also “crime/terrorism” and “alternative sexual lifestyles” including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, according to documents posted to counterpunch.com, a left-leaning website.

Clara Bentler, a senior at Senior High, spoke about the policy at Monday’s board meeting, calling the filter an “obstruction to education.”

“It is very unclear how this design came about,” she said, expressing concerns that the process of determining what students can access on the internet should be transparent as well as blocked content.

“Do we want a community where kids are fully able to research events like 9/11?” she said.

District superintendent Greg Upham said many schools use the filter.

“I want to dispel any ideas that we have a social engineering of any kind or censorship,” he said

Brandon Newpher, the district’s technology director, said the exclusions were part of a “default group,” provided by Content Keeper, a common company used by schools.

“We can’t start with nothing and work our way up,” he said.

Upham said changes to the filter were made earlier this month, and the move wasn't sparked by any specific incident. He emphasized the importance of "continuing to communicate" with students, staff and the public about the topic.

A test of the system by a Gazette reporter showed that the filter blocked a wide spectrum of websites, but not always consistently.

Some gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy group websites were accessible, but the site for GLAAD, a leading advocacy group, was blocked.

Similarly, some gun rights websites were accessible, but the site for the National Rifle Association was blocked.

Trustees raised concerns about the blocked content.

Russ Hall said that he arrived at the Lincoln Center for Monday’s meeting with nine bookmarked websites, and wasn’t able to open three with district filters — “things that I would be happy to read with my mother looking over my shoulder,” he said. “This is a concern.”

Newpher said that the district has received 24 email requests to unblock sites, resulting in 18 sites unblocked. Two sites remained blocked.

Trustee Joe Raffiani asked repeatedly about options for students to anonymously request that a site be unblocked.

Newpher said the district is relying on email requests and doesn’t have a good anonymous option.

“If they are looking for information of a personal nature, they shouldn’t have to come out to anyone to explore that,” Raffiani said.

Hall echoed that sentiment.

“Possibly some of the sites that are blocked could be helping kids,” he said.

©2019 the Billings Gazette (Billings, Mont.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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