How Internet censorship harms schools

Last week, I wrote about how Web filtering software, designed to protect children from porn and other harmful content on the Internet, is being used in an excessively heavy-handed fashion, and frequently blocks students from accessing legitimate educational materials. ("Internet filtering as a form of soft censorship.")

Readers took me to task -- I think correctly -- for failing to provide examples. So I went back to the source of my information in that blog, Professor Craig Cunningham, of National-Louis University, to ask for specifics.

In the course of our conversation, we also clarified his central point, which is, I think, common-sensical and inarguable: People, not machines, should have authority over what students are allowed to access on the Internet. The final authority over Internet access should reside with the teachers and librarians charged with overseeing students, not software. (Disclaimer)

First, some examples.

The Canadian National History Society was forced to change the name of its magazine, The Beaver, founded in 1920, because the name of the magazine caused it to be blocked by Internet filters.

One teacher wanted to show students some pictures that would illustrate the effects of atomic testing. "However when I went to bring the wikipedia page up at school during class, it was blocked by our internet filter, BESS. The name of the islands? 'Bikini Atoll,'" said Doug Johnson, quoting the teacher. Johnson, a director of media and technology at a Minnesota school district, put out a call in July for stories about how Internet filtering hobbles education, and got an earful. ("Censorship by Omission")

Johnson also shares a message from another teacher, describing how a school's systems security manager decided to block the social bookmarking site delicous.com. The reason? You can use the site to search for porn:

When I went to his office to ask him why he blocked the site he opened his internet browser (which for some reason is not affected by our district filter) and he typed something along the lines of "group sex" into the Delicious search field. As the results poured in he said, "there you go, this site is full of pornography". When I explained to him that I could type the same query in Google, Yahoo, Bing, or any other search engine and get the same results, and after I assured him that certainly the sites that the Delicious "group sex" results linked to were blocked by our filtering software, he scratched his head in amazement. You would think the problem would be solved....no such luck! Although delicious.com is unfiltered now, the page to login is not ...he doesn't know how to unfilter https site. Good grief and pass the gravy!

The problem goes back for years. A filter blocked the Web site of former House Majoirty Leader Richard Armey because it detected the word "dick," according to "Internet Filters, a public policy report," a 2001 study from the Brennan Center of Justice. Other software blocked the Declaration of Independence, Shakespeare’s complete plays, "Moby-Dick," and "Marijuana: Facts for Teens," a brochure published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Cunningham says he experienced the problem himself a few days ago when a student tried to build a final project using DataMasher, and found the site was blocked for objectionable content, category, pornography. Cunningham had to appeal to his IT department to get the problem fixed.

"Teachers run up against this all the time when they're in a filtered environment. They go somewhere else. They find an alternate site," Cunningham said.

For more in my conversation with Cunningham, see, "A simple fix for Internet censorship in schools". Also, read the blog post I wrote that started the discussion: "Internet filtering as a form of soft censorship."

Update 1:25 pm: How's this for irony? Stumbleupon linked to this blog, which is good. But when a colleague forwarded me the link, and I clicked on it, I was sent to a warning page saying that I was being taken to ADULT CONTENT. I had to log in, change my filter settings (which took some hunting around), and then acknowledge that I might see X-Rated content, before being allowed to view this blog. Which, of course, contains only G-Rated content.  

I work as Internet Marketing Director for Palisade Systems, which provides a network security appliance and service that includes Web filtering.

Mitch Wagner on Internet censorship in schools

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