Internet filtering as a form of soft censorship

The Internet is a powerful tool for education. But teachers are often unable to use it effectively because of clumsy Web filtering tools installed in schools, says Professor Craig Cunningham, of National-Louis University.

Schools routinely install Internet filtering software, designed to protect students from porn, hate speech, and other inappropriate content, as well as shield the children from sexual predators, and from wasting time on social media sites when they should be learning, Cunningham said.

But the filters are put in place without adequate forethought, blocking sites that should be accessible, and vice-versa. Schools don't take an active role in deciding which sites should be blocked, abdicating that responsibility to the private, for-profit vendors who sell the products. The result is that students are deprived of education, Cunningham said.

Cunnningham gave a presentation in Second Life, part of a Smarter Technology series of educational talks. (Disclaimer: I have a personal connection with the subject matter and hosts of this talk. Scroll down to the bottom of this post for details.)

Instead of simply blocking sites, students should be permitted, or even encouraged, to access objectionable material, under teacher supervision, to help them learn, Cunningham said. The sites that are edgiest are the most likely to be most educational.

"It comes down to education versus prohibition. Do you prohibit students from accessing materials, or do you educate them by letting them access the materials?" he said. "True learning occurs at the margins, true learning occurs at the situations where people encounter materials with which they're unfamiliar, and don't understand, and have misconceptions about."

Schools put filtering software in place as part of the requirement of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), a U.S. law passed in 2001 covering public schools and libraries. The law requires filtering to protect children against "inappropriate" and "harmful materials" on the Internet, as well as protecting students' "safety and security" when using e-mail, chatrooms and "other forms of direct electronic communications." Because of First Amendment restrictions, the law gives U.S. government no oversight authority over the nature of the filters.

In theory, that leaves the rules up to state and local government and the teachers. In practice, local authorities generally install Web filtering from private vendors, who make the decisions what to filter on their own, often keeping the lists of censored sites secret.

Despite the abuse, Cunningham said filtering is necessary. "I'm not arguing that all filtering is bad. But when filtering reaches the point that teachers and students are prevented from accessing materials that in their mind has educational value, that's more like censoring than filtering," Cunningham said. Filtering should be limited to pornography, which is the only thing the law requires.

The U.S. is not alone enacting Internet filtering. In Cuba, if a computer user at a government-controlled Internet cafe types certain words, the word processor or browser is automatically closed and the user gets a state-security warning.

By comparison, in Chicago, if a student or school employee accesses an inappropriate site, a siren sounds, similar to a warning of a natural disaster. The noise is audible to everyone around, and it continues until the site is shut down. Students can disable the siren. A administrator gets an e-mail when inappropriate site access occurs. Inappropriate sites include porn, as well as social networking sites such as MySpace or YouTube.

Filters use a variety of techniques. Some block all sites except those on a whitelist. Others only block sites on a blacklist. Some block sites with banned words, phrases, or even images -- algorithms recognize when a photo is mostly skin. Other filters block some words or phrases from being typed by users, although that's rare. Most companies use a variety of these techniques.

Some filters block all newsgroups, social networking, sites, and some search engines. Some filters block translation sites, because those might be used to access inappropriate contact in foreign languages, Cunningham said.

Some schools give teachers a password to override filters for 30 minutes, which Cunningham said is a great idea. "There are a lot of districts that don't do that, though. In Chicago, nobody has that authority. You have to submit a form to the central district and wait three or four weeks to get a response."

Web filtering denies students equal access to education. "The U.S. has areas like Chicago that are relatively liberal and diverse and tolerant of ideas (although the schools are not like that), and then you have small-town Kansas where everyone is white, everyone is a Republican, everyone is a Christian, and that kid is going to be raised in an environment where he has no access to alternative points of view on homosexuality and religion. So you're denying that kid an education -- you're literally doing that," Cunningham said.

Web filtering also leads to inequities in education based on household income. Students from more affluent areas have access to Internet at home and, often, more enlightened parents who can let them access information blocked in schools and libraries. Poorer students without home access don't have those opportunities, Cunningham said.

Children need to be educated to face the challenges of the 21st Century, not protected from inappropriate content, Cunningham said.

He quoted form a National Research Council study, "Youth, Pornography, and the Internet:" "Swimming pools can be dangerous for children. To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences, and deploy pool alarms. All these measures are helpful, but by far the most important things one can do for one's children is to teach them to swim."

Download the presentation: "Filtering for in and on Education, or Censorware in Schools - What Teachers Should Know and Do."

Disclaimers: I do Internet marketing consulting for Palisade Systems, which makes network security tools that include Web filtering. World2Worlds, which hosts the Smarter Technology event, also provides hosting for Copper Robot, a series of interview programs I host in Second Life. And Smarter Technology is published by Ziff Davis Enterprise, which competes with Computerworld's parent company, International Data Group.

Mitch Wagner on Internet censorship in schools

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