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In the 1990s, the term “digital divide” was coined to define the gap between people who had regular access to technology and those who did not—the proverbial technology “haves and have-nots.” Since then, the digital divide has shifted to mean more than simply being able to surf the web. And as technological needs and capabilities have grown, so have the inequities.

This week I looked at schools that filter and block certain websites on school Wi-Fi networks, as well as on school-issued laptops and tablets that students take home. The concerns and challenges all circle back to how heavy-handed internet filtering undermines student learning, particularly for children who depend exclusively on school-provided internet access and devices.

This common-sense viewpoint, however, has yet to trickle down to many schools, where over-filtering—filtering beyond the requirements of [the Children’s Internet Protection Act]—is common. One of the most ardent and active opponents of over-filtering to date has been the American Library Association, which for many years has championed the need to protect students’ access to “legal, constitutionally protected information that is necessary for their school studies [and] personal well-being,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the deputy director for ALA’s office for intellectual freedom. Stone said in some cases, the problem is as simple as school staff failing to adjust the pre-set maximum settings on filtering software, though much of the difficulty resides with school personnel who misunderstand the federal law and the requirements necessary to be in compliance. As an example, she said both the Federal Communications Commission and representatives from the Department of Education have issued guidance stating that Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms do not need to be filtered, but school districts often block these websites “on the grounds that students might access content barred by CIPA.”

This finding is confirmed by anecdotal and empirical evidence. In Maine, Portland Public Schools in April 2012 installed filters on high-school students’ school-issued laptops that banned access to social networks, games, and video-streaming sites. At the time, Portland was among the first districts in the state to authorize such stringent filtering on take-home school devices. As the Press Herald reported, Portland High School students had very different responses to the new policy, based on their access to another computer at home: “…those from middle-class families expressed various degrees of annoyance when told of the new filtering measures. A group of immigrant students reacted with anger.”

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