Web Access Management: A New Approach

The FCC recently requested comments on the new CIPA requirements for Internet safety education. The FCC also asked for guidance on two other issues that relate to this information request: How schools are interpreting the CIPA language “harmful to minors” and issues around overriding the filter.

I have been working on material that will soon be released addressing more effective Internet use management. These are my thoughts on the overall issue:

As you might recall, CIPA requires blocking obscene material, child pornography, and material harmful to minors. The definition”harmful to minors” basically also described obscene material – this is totally grounded in adult sexual materials. The FCC asked for insight into how schools were determining what material is harmful to minors and including community standards with this. This question is absolute nonsense. Schools are not determining any of this. They are totally reliant on the decisions made by filtering companies – that do not disclose how they are deciding what to block. Essentially what schools are blocking is the categories developed by the filtering companies that appear to block adult sexual material. The fact that the FCC thinks schools have any other ability to choose is really weird.

The other thing they asked for comments on was the provision about disabling that reads: An authorized individual may disabled the technology protection measures for adults in order to enable bona fide research or other lawful purposes. It is exceptionally important to understand how this provision operates. Under CIPA, schools must block access to “porn” sites – but ONLY “porn” sites. Not anything else. So the disabling provision refers to disabling the filter to access porn sites for bona fide research or other lawful purpose. And all of the other material that a school “chooses” to limit access to using a filter is up to the school.

And, for the record, there is material in the first CIPA regulations that indicates a recognition that filters are imperfect. So, no it is not necessary to block access to the blog sites category because some blog sites allow adult material.

So let’s talk about what is happening in the real world – outside of the myth of CIPA. when the Internet came into schools, a misperception was disseminated. That is that it is possible to prevent student and staff Internet misuse of the Internet by using filtering. And thus, it became the tech services dept’s job to prevent misuse. Preventing misuse was no longer a shared responsibility. And because the filters were preventing student misuse, it was perfectly okay for teachers to take students to the computer lab to “surf the Internet” because this was educational and the filter would prevent misuse. Many of you are laughing at this point in time because you know there are still teachers in your schools who believe this. IT IS ESSENTIAL THAT WE GET PREVENTING MISUSE BACK TO A SHARED RESPONSIBILITY.

Why? Because at the same time that the federal government was requiring schools andf libraries to install filtering, another branch of the federal government was providing funding for the creation of technologies to allow people to bypass filters. You think I am joking, right. Well, will you believe PBS’s Frontline:  “With the exception of Psiphon, which receives funding from George Soros’ Open Society Institute, all these programs (referring to circumventioun programs) have received some support from the U.S. government. Peacefire and Freegate receive funding from the Voice of America and TOR began as a project of the U.S. Naval Research Lab.” And there are moves in Congress to encourage more and better technologies to undermine the Internet restrictions of repressive leaders. See this Commentary by Sen Specter.

Now, most students were not inclined to use proxies to gain access to porn, but with the explosion of social networking sites, this bypass technology was quickly discovered. Google “bypass Internet filter.” I just did and got 1,530,000  hits. Hey, including a couple of YouTube instructional videos.

So to think that filters are preventing students from going anywhere they want online is a JOKE!!! And maybe we ought to start admitting this. Don’t you think? And maybe we ought to look for other ways to effectively manage student Internet use. The ONLY thing filters are good for right now is preventing the rare accidental access  (which can be prevented pretty effectively by setting search engines to “safe search” and keeping your computer security up to date) and defining possible boundaries (the site you are trying to reach may not be appropriate).

This is why preventing misuse must be a shared responsibility. And we need to shift from a ridiculous reliance on ineffective blocking to more effective staff supervision and technical monitoring.

But there is another problem that we need to deal with. The filtering companies are trying like crazy to deal with all of the bypass technologies. And it appears that the techniques they are using are preventing more and more access to RELEVANT INSTRUCTIONAL RESOURCES!!!

So now we look at the other side of this picture. The very fine research of the Speak Up/Project Tomorrow folks has consistently found that filtering blocking student and staff access to relevant instructional resources is the NUMBER ONE barrier to the effective use of the Internet for instruction.  If teachers and students are constantly frustrated that they can never count on being able to access the material that is relevant for instruction, they are not going to even try to use the Internet for instruction. And this pretty much describes what is happening. So all of the money schools are pouring into instructional technologies is not resulting in educational change in part BECAUSE of the filters (there are also some other minor concerns like NCLB, lack of funds for professional development, and the like).

So here is my radical suggestion: Under CIPA schools ONLY have to block access to “porn.” They can allow the filter to be disabled to provide access to “porn” sites – for a legitimate purpose (And, yes, I have having a hard time figuring out what this legitimate purpose might be). All of the other categories are blocked at the discretion of the school. There are no federal dictates whatsoever on this.

So why don’t we start treating teachers like professionals (radical thought, eh?) and give all instructional staff the authority to bypass the filter – on their own discretion – to access sites for instructional purposes that are in any other category than the “porn” category and maybe some other categories that the district really does not think ought to be allowed without some level of administrator review and approval, like hate sites.

Yes, some teachers will not be responsible. Some may not understand other concerns, like bandwidth. But districts can come up with clear standards for when using the bypass authority is appropriate, bandwidth “hogs” are pretty easy to detect, and bypasses are recorded so a periodic random review ought to be effective in identifying teachers who are misusing this authority.

And then perhaps, maybe, after a decade of trying to deal with the wrong solution, we can shift to a management approach that will support the effective use of technology for instruction. I say this with some exacerbation because I was saying the same thing way back in 2000. Here are the materials I submitted to the COPA Commission and the NRC committee that was studying these issues wherein I quoted:

“When we fall into the trap of believing or, more accurately, hoping that technology will solve all of our problems, we are actually abdicating the high touch of personal responsibility. *** In our minds at least, technology is always on the verge of liberating us from personal discipline and responsibility. Only it never does and never will. The more technology around us, the more the need for human touch.” Naisbitt, Megatrends.

And I stated: “Regardless of issues related to the use, effectiveness, and appropriateness of technology tools, laws, and labeling systems, the simple and plain truth is that virtually every young person in this country will, at one time or another, have unsupervised access to the Internet through an unfiltered and unmonitored system. Any young person who desires to access the “darkside” of the Internet will be able to find a way to do so. Technology tools, laws, and labeling systems are insufficient means to prevent such access. The more important question, therefore, is how can we help young people gain the knowledge, decision-making skills, and motivation to make safe and responsible choices when they are using the Internet.”

Which is the path I have been on for a very long time.

4 responses to “Web Access Management: A New Approach

  1. This is what is happening in my school district. Wikispaces was blocked by a WebSense (the district filtering software) update because, as the IT guy I spoke to said, “It’s social networking isn’t it? What’s to keep students from uploading porn to it from home and sharing it at school?” And my internal response to that was “Nothing including WebSense is keeping students from doing that. Ever hear of a flash drive?” Fortunately, someone higher up in the food chain must have been using Wikispaces, because it was unblocked the next day. However, now the latest WebSense update is blocking all sites except the district webpage for any computers that don’t login through the school server. This includes my own personal computer that I use at school and most of the computers in my class lab (all of which are donated). Trying to teach a music technology class with no access to technology is very frustrating!

  2. Just recently friends and I have been discussing the absurdity of filters. I wrote about it here and love to have you visit and comment! I think you are my new hero Nancy LOL. I am but a school librarian who carries little weight where the filtering decisions are made, implemented, enforced, and ignored by many of our kids. http://blog.cathyjonelson.com/?p=1078

  3. Pingback: Cathy Nelson’s Professional Thoughts » Blog Archive » Filtering: An expert voices my concerns

  4. Pingback: Wall Garden « Graeme Thain:EDTECH Portfolio

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