Net Acess, Not Net Panic

by Chris Ellison, Campaign for Internet Freedom

Students need more access to the Net, not less.

The panic over Net material has led teaching unions to demand restrictions, when they should be demanding more access not less, argues Alan Donnelly.

At a recent meeting of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' in Bournemouth the Internet was discussed by educators, not as a tool for developing children's learning skills but as something dangerous. They said obscene or racist material was available on the Internet even if computers were screened using so-called "firewall" software.

The dangers were made clear at the conference as members were warned that they risked legal action if they were not seen to be taking enough precautions to prevent their students from accessing offensive material. The Union called for schools to be given electronic guards against unsuitable material, to protect teachers from being challenged by parents' solicitors.

However the Union's reaction does a disservice to its members and only serves to amplify already over-exaggerated fears of the Internet. For some time the freedom of communication offered by the Internet has been depicted as dangerous and corrupting. The call for special protection can only reinforce the irrational idea that accessing the Net is a high risk activity, and that special measures are needed for protection. Not only is it dangerous for children, we are told, but now it represents a substantial legal danger for adult teachers.

The technology of the Internet is frequently depicted as the source of new social problems. However the existence of pornography in classrooms is not a new one, and is one that teachers are already well equipped to deal with. Being experts in educating children, teachers are well qualified to decide what is appropriate material for the classroom. The Internet is no more of a challenge to teachers than a copy of Playboy smuggled into the classroom by an adolescent boy. The idea that special censorware is necessary to help teachers is comparable to instituting searches of school students as they enter school premises in case they are secreting adult material in their schoolbags.

The current debate about children accessing Net pornography in schools is part of a wider panic about the dangers of the Internet. School teachers are merely the latest group to be caught up in an irrational reaction to what is probably one of the greatest communications developments since the advent of the printing press. According to a recent study the reality is that less than 16% of all school pupils have access to the Net. Put in this perspective the idea that students' access to the Internet needs restricting is simply absurd.

Teachers do not need to use censorware to help them control unruly children. No amount of porn-blocking software will guarantee that pupils will concentrate on the educational subject rather than playing cards at the back of the class or throwing paper darts. Teachers are the experts at getting students to acquaint themselves with educational material. Installing filtering software in schools cannot help teachers to inform and develop their pupils. It can only reinforce the prejudice that teachers don't do their job and propagate the myth that society is better off without the freedom of the Internet.