School internet filter continues to spark controversy

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School internet filter continues to spark controversy

Stephen Gant, News Writer

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All too often, Canfield High School students are confronted with the words “Sorry, this website is blocked” when attempting to do schoolwork.

Months after its initial implementation, the school’s internet filter is still disrupting the educational process for an overwhelming majority of students.  At the same time, there is also a surprising lack of understanding as to how the school’s filter even works.

Everything started at the beginning of this school year when ACCESS, the government-affiliated Internet service provider for parts of Mahoning and Columbiana County, decided to switch it’s internet filter to a new system called Lightspeed.  The filter works by blacklisting, or blocking, IP addresses and ports, or areas of the internet, from which unwanted content originates.  As required by state law in the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA), schools must have internet filters that block “pictures that are: (a) obscene; (b) child pornography; or (c) harmful to minors.”

By default, the filter blocks web sites containing pornography, gambling, and other highly explicit content.  In addition to its default settings, the filter also allows for groups like ACCESS to further restrict what students may look at.  However, any additional content blocked by groups like ACCESS can be temporarily or permanently unlocked by individual school districts.  This leaves the burden of fine-tuning the filter to individual school districts.

In Canfield High School, many students feel that the current filter is too much.  In a survey conducted by The Cardinal, 99% of students reported that the filter interfered with their work with over 75% saying that it made it impossible to do certain work inside of school.  And despite the fact that teachers can temporarily unblock some websites, almost 60% of students reported that it is not easy to have such content unblocked.

However, a look into the specifics of the student body’s understanding of the filter also reveals a troubling lack of understanding.  When asked to specifically name blocked websites that students need to access, one of the most popular responses was Wikipedia, which has been permanently unlocked for months now.  On top of this, many students claimed that Google images was blocked, but as Mr. George Malich, district technology coordinator, said, “The filter is not supposed to block Google images.  The only reason it is blocked is due to a coding error.  Any other image searcher works just fine.”

That being said, the filter does still impose an unnecessarily excessive burden on students, teachers, and technology supervisors.  The filter’s method of blocking IP’s and ports makes it so that one legitimate website that originates from the same area as a blocked website is blocked as “general.”

While this method does have its advantages in terms of creating a flexible and comprehensive filter with little work, it also comes with a serious downside: overblocking.  And because the filter’s excessive blocking must be peeled back manually in order to ensure education, its method of blocking IPs and ports ends up still leaving a significant amount of work on the plates of technology supervisors.

Mr. Malich explained that “in order to unblock Wikipedia we had to go through and manually unlock each and every one of the hundreds of ports and IPs that the webpage originated from. That’s why it took so long.”

Even now, one does not have to go far to find websites which should not be blocked even now.  For example, the Peterson Institute for International Politics, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, and numerous other sites are being unnecessarily blocked in the name of protecting students from explicit content.

Many are quick to blame Lightspeed’s filter for this excessive blocking, but Lightspeed’s initial filter is actually very limited.  On their webpage, they remark, ”It’s time to rethink web filtering for schools. As much as a web filter needs to block inappropriate content, it also needs to ALLOW education. This means access to tools, resources, and people that can make learning engaging and real. While those resources and tools already exist to a large degree, they’re often found in disparate, unmanaged solutions that end up being silos of information or underused because they’re overblocked. The Lightspeed Systems solution is different.”

The reason the filter is so restrictive is because ACCESS is using its ability to further narrow the filter.  While they are required to meet certain minimum standards by CIPA, Lightspeed further explains that, “Allowing YouTube videos is not a violation of CIPA” and “Allowing social networking is [also] not a violation of CIPA.”  Yet both are still blocked by ACCESS’ filter.  Furthermore, as has been stated above, CIPA is devoted solely to blocking “pictures” not websites.  But once again,  ACCESS’ filter blocks numerous websites.

Sadly, the filter has largely failed to accomplish its goal of providing security.  84% of students reported that they are able to circumvent the filter and still look at content that should be blocked.  They reportedly did so by  using their phones, which are not filtered, or by finding websites or pictures that “slip through the cracks.”

Overall, ACCESS’ overly restrictive filter sends the troubling message that education in schools should take the back seat to unobtainable security.

However, the administration within Canfield Schools is capable of alleviating the problem of over filtering.  Mr. Malich notes, “we are open to suggestions when it comes to permanently unblocking content, but that would need to start at the administration to get their approval first.”  By establishing a responsive communication mechanism between students, teachers and the administration with something as simple as a suggestion box for unlocking clearly educational websites, Canfield Schools can still provide an environment where education comes first even with an unreasonable filter.

 

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