"THE WEBSITE you have requested cannot be accessed." This stern warning was recently directed at Ballard High School junior Brenda Valdez. Was her computer broken? No. Valdez was doing a research paper on the Black Panthers, and her school computer was working exactly as the Seattle public schools intended. Valdez was using a computer equipped with "Bess," an Internet filtering program that the school district bought for $10,000.

As computers and the Internet become more common in schools, so do the efforts to control the medium. Three years ago, citing a "widely expressed concern among parents and teachers" (though no public forum was held), the Seattle school district voted to implement Bess on all school computers, says Lynn Steinberg, the school district's public relations officer. Known as an Internet filter, Bess is a software program that keeps material like pornography and vulgarity away from students. N2H2, the Seattle company that created Bess, offers schools and parents peace of mind about an Internet filled with "potential dangers," the company website proclaims. However, there seem to be some potential dangers in N2H2's product. Bess veers toward censorship and also works to serve up students as a captive commercial market.

Here's a brief summary of how Bess works: When a student wants to look at a website, that particular site is checked with a database, hosted in N2H2's server. This database is essentially a gate between the school computer and the Internet. The database is composed of over 15 million websites that the folks at N2H2 have deemed inappropriate for students. How do they do this? Straight from a science fiction movie, the company "combs the web using an array of Artificial Intelligence tools" and over 100 "trained Human-Reviewers," who group the unsavory sites into different categories. For a $10,000 setup fee, schools use Bess to block the categories they want to keep away from students.

Sure, Internet blocking can be useful, but it's also extremely problematic. There's a slippery slope between N2H2's blocking technology and censorship. For example, to help gather "suspect" websites, companies like N2H2 use automated keyword searching. These searches identify websites by the words contained within the site, like "sex" or "blood." The automated keyword searches often prevent legitimate material--like breast cancer information or sex education--from being seen.

For example, Valdez's classmates at Ballard High School, like freshman Amanda Renton, have had difficulty doing research papers at school. "I wrote down 'vagina' to research a health paper and the computer was like, 'Uh, you can't do this,'" Renton says. Sophomore Kenny Tsang had problems with Bess as well. Tsang was doing research on a veterans' project and ran into trouble finding war pictures. "You can't go nowhere!" he says. Officials at Ballard High did not return our calls.

At Madrona Elementary School, librarian Hazelynn Floyd has run into similar problems. Using her home computer, Floyd found websites that her students could use for research projects. However, many of the sites available on her home computer were not available on the school's computers. "About one in five or more are blocked," Floyd estimates.

Censorship isn't the only concern with Bess. Internet filtering is also big business, and schools are the next gold mine. "Corporate sponsors are starting to recognize our unique ability to deliver 12.5 million users," says Peter Nickerson, CEO of N2H2. In the case of Bess, every website has a "Resource Bar," which is stamped with a logo for research tools like Microsoft Encarta or N2H2's own Searchopolis. And if the school opts for the sponsor-based program (which gives "Bess" to schools for free), additional advertising for products like Coca-Cola appear on the resource bar. (Seattle schools do not use the sponsor-based setup.) Furthermore, students' web usage is tracked by N2H2 and shared with advertisers.

Currently, Bess is in over 8,750 schools and serves over nine million students worldwide. N2H2 has statewide filtering contracts in Arkansas, Idaho, Massachusetts, and Iowa, and holds 80 percent of the market share in public schools. N2H2's 1999 revenues of 6.4 million are expected to double in 2000.

Bess' lucrative filter concept is being hyped to schools as a force field against the dangers of the Internet, and Seattle schools are buying it. The district thinks the dangers of censorship are outweighed by "the need to protect kids from inappropriate content," says Steinberg. But who will regulate the schools to make sure students are getting the most information they can? In Seattle, Bess makes no distinction between high schools and elementary schools when filtering the Internet. As a result, high school seniors are prevented from accessing content that has been deemed inappropriate for fourth-graders. (The Seattle school system is currently reviewing its blocking policy.) Ultimately, Bess--a seemingly well-intentioned technology--chills civil liberties and delivers students to drooling advertisers.

ATTENTION SUBVERSIVE STUDENTS! Go to http://www.peacefire.org/bypass/proxy/ and learn how to disable Bess and get around Internet filtering in your school.

Nif Rios contributed to this report.

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