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Filtering the Web: Is It a Mission Impossible or Just Misdirected Policy?
by Dr. Rob Reilly
Regular contributor to the Gazette
February 1, 2008
As I sit here in Beijing, China, I notice how similar the winter here is compared to the winter in Massachusetts. There’s lots of snow, lots of cold, and lots of desire to find warm indoor activities.
Actually, the local news stations are reporting that this is the coldest winter in Beijing in five decades. My previous trip to China was this past summer, and it was warm, very warm. I did quite a bit of sightseeing then, but virtually no Web browsing. It was good that I took advantage of the warm weather then, I would not like to try any sightseeing this week!
So here I am back in my Beijing hotel room staying warm and catching-up on my email and browsing the Internet; but as I browse the World Wide Web, I realize just how heavily filtered it is! And, I’d imagine that the filters are closely monitored; so I’m not going to test the Chinese filtering system and see where I can and can’t go-to! I wonder just how effective the hardware/software filter is and, I assume, there is also a very effective human filter/monitoring! Needless to say, I did not field test the effectiveness of the human filter!
Not too much later, I finished my email and my ritualistic Web crawl. Then I began to think about the USA mandate that every state, through their Department of Education, should have a software or hardware filter in place in every school to protect the students from inappropriate material/people. I wondered about filtering schemes and the various policies that drive them. As I thought of the various countries in the world that have filtering, I wondered,
What problem does filtering attempt to solve in that country, and does the policy solve the problem?
The Chinese, the Saudis, and we Americans have identified a ‘problem’ and enacted policy to deal with it. But I wondered how the answers to my questions vary from one country to another.
It seems to me that the goal of filtering is to keep people from accessing something on a Web site or restricting email. In certain countries in the world, the goal of filtering is to keep the average citizens from accessing non-government approved material for various reasons. In these countries, their policy is directly aligned with their goal. These countries identified their ‘problem’ and then enacted and deployed policy that deals with the ‘problem’ very effectively.
The goal of filtering in the USA is to keep children from coming into contact with ‘harmful’ material and/or ‘harmful’ people. I’m sure that we are all very much in favor of keeping bad things and bad people away from children. But I wonder just how effective our policy is and how effective our hardware/software filters are. The question is: Does our policy directly align with its goal?
Certainly the difficulty in solving the problem of contact with inappropriate people/material may be vested in the effectiveness of the filters themselves and not in the policy. I wondered about this; I wondered if the policy – deploying hardware/software filters – is THE solution. Certainly it helps alleviate the problem of children coming into contact with inappropriate material. Filters are a good thing; a very good thing actually. But it seems to me that filters have given us a false sense of security. It seems to me that filters and the policy they have engendered have furthered the illusion that filters insulate children from inappropriate material, and that they are THE solution. It seems to me that filters are like shark repellant; they don’t really work. It seems to me that we have neglected our responsibility to educate the children about the dangers of Web browsing and Internet. It seems to me that the ‘cure’ is misdirected and creates a more challenging educational environment than it should!
“I am not sure just what the school uses for the entire system. I do know it is basically useless though. The kids use circumventors to get around it to get to whatever they want to get to. And it stops them from doing actual research on school subjects.”
In another Internet Security and Safety chat board posting, newazsub bemoans that fact that:
“Websense wont let me on Teachers.Net's main teacher chatboard (it says it’s a chatroom and I am not allowed to go there), BUT it will let me onto every other board.”
So, given all this, it does not seem that the goal is to protect children!
To me it seems that we view filters as THE solution. But I wonder WHAT filters are THE solution for? I wonder what problem they solve? The Chinese government, the Saudi Arabian government, and the US government have identified their ‘problems’ and have implemented policy to deal with then. If the filter is THE solution to the US ‘problem’, we in the USA, seem to have misidentified the ‘problem’! In the USA, filtering seems to actually be THE solution that protects the school administration and teachers from blame. Thus the USA-identified ‘problem’ is that school/teachers may be held legally liable or just may be the focus of an irate parent.
I believe that having a policy where students and parents must sign Internet use forms without providing education to the students about the dangers of the Internet, just serves to insulate the school from blame. That is not altogether a really bad idea. But without an aggressive program that addresses the dangers of the Internet and Web, signing Internet use forms solves only the problem of parents taking action against the school.
Dr. Rob Reilly is the computer education teacher at the Lanesborough Elementary School in Lanesborough, Massachusetts USA. He is also a Visiting Scientist at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is conducting NSF funded research in the area of affective computing, emotions and learning. He has been a Visiting Scientist at MIT's Center for Educational Computing Initiatives, a Post Doctoral Research Associate at the University of Massachusetts' Office of Information Technologies, and a Teaching Associate, at the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts. His email address is: email@example.com His Web site is: http://web.media.mit.edu/~reilly/.