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Protect students from exposure to harmful online content

Most talk of virtual schooling has focused on the irreparable damage that isolation has inflicted on an entire generation of students; but it also exposed deep vulnerabilities in the barriers we’ve built between children and the darker corners of the internet.

Indeed, over the past two years, school districts have been sending kids home with laptops and tablets in unprecedented numbers. Thousands of these devices and the Internet connections that power them were purchased under two federal grant programs overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), known as E-Rate and the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF). . Giving students these devices has dramatically increased screen time and made it harder for parents to protect their children from exposure to objectively harmful online content. Congress and regulators have worked overtime trying to place safeguards around Big Tech that both empower parents and stop online predators who target children. But the success or failure of these efforts will largely depend on the willingness of regulators to enforce the safeguards that Congress has put in place.

On online privacy and data security issues, we are forging new territory with legislation currently pending in Congress; but when it comes to the workings of minors’ use of technology, we started laying a protective legal foundation decades ago, starting with the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA). The law requires school districts that profit from E-Rate or ECF dollars to follow internet safety policies and implement technological protection measures that prevent students from accessing pornography and other types of obscene material on school apparatus. The FCC has rules requiring school districts to certify that the E-Rate and ECF devices they put in children’s hands are CIPA compliant.

CIPA compliance represents the lowest of the lowest regulatory bars. And yet, evidence has surfaced suggesting that some school districts are breaking the law, leaving kids exposed to the most predatory parts of the internet. A 2021 survey found that only 71% of teachers surveyed could confirm that their districts had installed the kind of online protection measures required by the CIPA. While it’s true that not all school devices need to be CIPA compliant, we know that they all end up in the hands of children who don’t yet understand how dangerous the virtual world can be.

So what’s going on with these federal programs? Has the law failed to keep up with changing technology, or do we need the FCC and school districts to step up their compliance efforts in light of this increase in new devices?

As far as the law goes, the CIPA itself is a narrow law, and there’s no reason why it hasn’t stood the test of time and changed circumstances. Money is flowing to the schools that need it, but that money is conditional on following a simple rule: keep children safe. The past 22 years of paradigm-shifting innovation since Congress passed CIPA have changed the world, but not this standard.

What has changed is the sophistication behind the threat. Algorithms driven by Facebook, Tik Tok and other digital platforms are urging young users to document shocking and disturbing adult behavior, even as experts and congressional panels expose the havoc wrought by the content. Human traffickers, pedophiles and drug traffickers take advantage of their vulnerability with heartbreaking results. It’s a nightmare for parents, children and teachers, but remember that this nightmare lives on a screen. At least when it comes to federally funded devices, we can and should control which eyeballs are attacked.

Contrary to what fearmongers in Washington are saying, CIPA does not require or authorize anyone to monitor students, and we have never suggested that this is the solution to keeping young people safe online. In fact, we said the exact opposite, because full surveillance would do more harm than good. But we owe it to parents and their children to ensure that these covered laptops and tablets live up to the common sense protections already enshrined in law while anticipating the evolution of threats 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 a school district puts in the hands of a student complies with the CIPA. School districts must also step up their efforts to keep students safe online. While some districts are being diligent with the use of technology, others are taking an overly reckless approach to student safety.

But it is important to remember that there is not much that policy makers and educators can do. The people closest to the children have the most influence on their behavior, and it’s their job to keep an eye on those screens – provided by the school or not – to make sure that the people at each other end of the connection have the best interests of their children. heart.

Marsha Blackburn is the senior senator from Tennessee and Brendan Carr is an FCC commissioner.