Filtering follies

Wrong Way signYou always learn interesting things when your kids forget you are listening to them in the car. A few years back, I learned that my son and his friends were getting around the filter on the high school computers. I also learned that it was more complicated than just that.

They had found a way to disable the filter, not just for themselves, but for the whole school. But that was only one part of the conversation. The majority of the conversation was their moral dilemma – and not the dilemma you might expect.

  • Were they worried about the hacking they were doing? No.
  • Were they torn up about accessing illegal music, movies, or inappropriate content? Nope, that’s not what they were doing.

They were hacking the filter because they wanted to improve access for the whole school. They said the computers in the school were nearly unusable because of the filter. They talked about how teachers had given up trying to use the Internet because everything was blocked. But mostly they were worried that they might get a teacher they liked in trouble.

The district IT people had configured the filter so only they could administer it. But they never unblocked what the teachers asked for, only shut down more and more things. The kids had figured out how to override that. But they liked the technology teacher and didn’t want to get him in trouble. So they created some sort of subterfuge that made it look to the district like nothing was changed.

As the technical details soared way over my head, I edged into the conversation. Had they talked to their tech teacher about this? Sort of, they said, but he essentially told them, “you can’t fight city hall.” Mostly, they felt sorry for him. They wondered why the district didn’t trust him to manage the filter software so he could make it more useful for the teachers and students. They figured that by doing this themselves, it would protect him and get the results they wanted.

They argued pretty compellingly that this small infraction was justified for the greater good. They all knew the consequences, and were pretty satisfied with taking any punishment that might occur if they were caught. After all, they all had access at home, so being caught would simply mean that the filter would be turned back on, and their privileges to use the then worthless school computers might be revoked.

I have to admit, I didn’t do anything. Maybe I should have, maybe me saying something would have changed district policy, or gotten these boys or the teacher in trouble. Maybe by breaching security they were messing up something well beyond their understanding. Maybe they gave it up after a week and went on to some other project. I never heard any more about it.

It’s been a while since this particular incident, but it’s happening all over in a thousand different ways. Overly zealous filters don’t protect children, they harm them by denying kids and educators teachable moments. They teach kids that we don’t trust them. They convince educators that the Internet is still not ready for school. IT professionals spend their valuable time playing silly cat and mouse games with kids. Schools spend money on connectivity, and additional money crippling it.

Of course I’m not advocating for unlimited access to bad stuff. I wish I knew how to fix it 100% sure fire every time. What I do know is that we don’t shutter libraries because a kid might sneak a trashy magazine in to read. We don’t take away pencils because someone might write something unsavory. You can make educationally appropriate reading, writing, or technology use more compelling and more interesting than the inappropriate uses. That’s what good teachers, media specialists and librarians do–when we let them.

My carpool kids could have been partners, rather than adversaries in the district’s quest for technology. Like the boy in Australia who figured out how to disable the government’s 84 million dollar filter in 30 minutes, students all over the world are ready, willing, and able to be part of the solution. This particular scary menace to society said, “Filters aren’t addressing the bigger issues anyway. Cyberbullying, educating children on how to protect themselves and their privacy are the first problems I’d fix.” Oh, yeah, he’s a troublemaker, all right.

We have to be willing to work with students and invite them to be real partners, not treat them as certain criminals. There is simply no other solution.

One Reply to “Filtering follies”

  1. Nice story, thanks.

    There are a lot of issues involved here but I think the main one is that taking humans out of the loop and fixing the problem with arbitrary inflexible, locked down technology that treats everyone the same always fails

    I also can’t resist mentioning Seth Finkelstein’s brilliant observation:

    “7. If censorware works for parents to control children in the US, it’ll work for governments to control citizens in e.g. China. Contrariwise, if censorware can’t work for governments to control citizens in e.g. China, it can’t work for parents to control children in the US.

    Many discussions of censorware tend to revolve around statements of values, usually concerning which authorities have legitimate rights of control, in what contexts. Typically the values are that parents have a right to prohibit their children from reading certain materials, employers can control what employees view, but governments should not censor citizen’s ability to obtain information. However, the technical implications here are essentially identical, no matter what the social relationships.

    So there’s a deep problem in efforts to bypass Internet censorship. If citizens can escape from government control, then children can escape from parent’s control. But if restricting information works on minors in the US, it’ll work on citizens under dictatorial governments. Either way, the results are problematic.”

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