The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires that schools and libraries that receive funding from the federal E-rate program monitor minors' online activities and block or filter content that is obscene, contains child pornography, or is "harmful to minors." Restricting children's access to obscene and pornographic content at school sounds perfectly reasonable in theory. But in practice many schools actually filter a lot more than that, blocking access to some of the most popular Web 2.0 sites -- Dropbox, Skype, Twitter, Wikipedia, Facebook and YouTube, for example.
Excessive filtering causes problems for students, teachers, and Web companies alike. Whether or not you see sites like Facebook as distractions, it's hard to argue that there is a wealth of educational content on many of these "social" websites-- information that teachers might want to use in the classroom. (It's worth pointing out here that CIPA does not mandate teachers' access to sites be blocked.
When students, teachers, parents and administrators were surveyed late last year by Project Tomorrow, one of the greatest barriers to technology usage at school that students listed: filtering. 71% of high school students and 62% of middle school students said that the most important thing their school could do to make it easier for them to use technology would be to allow them greater access to the websites they need.
The issue has seemed far less pressing for the companies whose sites are filtered at schools. It was COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act -- a law requiring stricter privacy measures for sites that allow those under 13 to join -- that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously questioned.
Most Web companies have remained silent on the filtering issue. The exception may be Google.
Of course, it's hardly a surprise that the company is interested in Web filtering issues. With the Google Apps for Education and Chromebooks programs, it's clear that the company is working hard to get more schools on the Web -- and using Google products.
And on the list of most-frequently blocked websites is a major Google property: YouTube. As the educational video content there expands (most notably, perhaps, with the thousands of Khan Academy videos), Google is stepping up its game to help provide students and schools with better access to that site.
As Tina Barseghian reports on MindShift, Google is launching a new program for YouTube that will redirect all links to educational content to YouTube.com/education. The comments will be disabled, and the videos that are listed as "related" will all be educational as well. (Hopefully, it will also control what types of ads show up there too.)
This isn't the first time that Google has had to address issues of blocked sites. Last year, Google's newly launched Encrypted Search was found to run afoul of CIPA. As the name Encrypted Search suggests, the tool allows people to search from https://google.com without their data being logged, filtered, or blocked. This raised a number of red flags for schools required to monitor their students' online activities, and they argued that their only choice would be to block the whole https://google.com domain -- and that would, of course, include blocking Google Apps. Google responded by moving its Encrypted Search to a new domain: https://encrypted.google.com.
In the case of YouTube, schools will still be able to block the main domain but allow access to YouTube.com/education. Schools interested in the pilot program for this can sign up here.
Google's strategy in the case of gaining more acceptance for YouTube at school doesn't simply involve offering this technical work-around. YouTube also recently launched a new channel, YouTube Teachers, aimed at helping teachers create more video content of their own and incorporate more (YouTube) video in the classroom.
Will these efforts help schools to re-examine some of their over-zealous filtering efforts?