Internet censorship harms schools

MItch Wagner sez, "I've done a series of blog posts on the subject of how Internet censorship harms American schools, based on conversations with Craig Cunningham, an associate professor, in the Technology in Education Program at National-Louis University. The latest is 'How Internet censorship harms schools.' Readers asked for examples of how heavy-handed Internet filtering software hurts education. Here are a few, with pointers to more."
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 The reason? You can use the site to search for porn.

Other blockages include Melville's Moby-Dick.

Every time I give a school talk, I ask teachers and students for examples of how blocking harms their education, and every teacher has a list of problems a mile long -- horror stories about setting up a lesson plan in the morning with links to videos and web-sites, only to discover by the afternoon that key URLs have been erroneously blocked.

And yet, every group of students I speak to has no problem coming up with ways to evade censorware. Which means that we're not stopping kids from doing naughty things -- just driving them to keep their network activity hidden from the educators who are supposed to be helping them navigate the information age, while confounding their teachers' ability to use legitimate materials in the classroom.

How Internet censorship harms schools (Thanks, Mitch!)


  1. I remember reading a number of years ago about a new release of AOL with it’s web censoring highly advertised caused problems for the friendly burghers of Scunthorpe.

    They were asked to kindly fill in place of residence as “Sconthorpe”.


  2. Censorship always leads to absurdity, my favor example is a high school performance of Dracula from which all mentions of blood were removed.

  3. Sadly; it’s the bull-headed parents that make the school a bad place for the rest of the kids; when a parent finds something objectionable some schools just throw up their hands and apply the “offended” parent’s morality to everyone. It’s a crime; it’s equivocating protection of a minority with minority rule; two very differing concepts.

  4. And yet, every group of students I speak to has no problem coming up with ways to evade censorware. Which means that we’re not stopping kids from doing naughty things — just driving them to keep their network activity hidden from the educators who are supposed to be helping them navigate the information age, while confounding their teachers’ ability to use legitimate materials in the classroom.

    So, by spurring students to innovation through an indirect appeal to their healthy defiance of wrongful authority, their love of tech, and their willful independence and youthfulness, these schools are indeed “helping them navigate the information age”: the schools are showing them early on the dystopian, decentered parentalism and panoptic surveillance world of the twenty-first century at firsthand, and, better, how to navigate around these roadblocks. Go, terrible schools! Huzzah, censorious and ignorant administrators!

    I’m being ironic, obviously, but it would seem that this furtive rebelliousness wouldn’t entirely be a bad skillset when these students come of age.

    1. Thanks Tdawwg for saying what I was planning to in a much more eloquent way. Indeed, it’s a travesty, but perhaps it’s an educational one…

  5. I think all schools are being lumped together here. I’m a sysadmin for a large school in the UK and we do filter the Internet but not to huge extents – essentially blocking a)nudie pics, b)harmful files (EXEs, BATs, etc) and c) obviously time wasting sites (eg If a site that is filtered has even a tenuous link to school work, we’ll unfilter it.

    The real place use of the Internet should be controlled is by teachers in the classrooms, the same way they would if a kid brought in an inappropriate magazine and passed it round the class. But to ask for completely unfiltered Internet access in a school (or even in a workplace) is crazy.

    Also, our staff level filtering is extremely light, just the nudie pics I believe.

  6. While Tdawwg is being ironic, there is some merit to that point. High school’s greatest lesson to me was how to navigate the nonsense rules and decrees of a lumbering bureaucratic beast. What paperwork is sufficient to let me change my class schedule? How can I get around the school’s computer restrictions without implying wrong-doing on my own part? Is asking for forgiveness really better than asking for permission? Those are critical skills to being an adult, unfortunately.

    Schools should *absolutely* choose the right path where ever they can — like avoiding censorship, etc. But it is hard to think of a better training ground for navigating bureaucratic dystopia, which, unfortunately, is a necessary job skill in many fields. I don’t think this is right, and I’m not happy about it, but for many, it will be school’s most lasting and useful lesson.

    1. This is an outstanding point, well expressed. I would have loved classes on surviving and navigating bureaucracy (and, for that matter, circumventing and subverting it!) in school.

  7. Our school kept switching to blacklisting the whole net, except a handful of bbc sites. This really upset me as I couldn’t go on vital sites such as uni pages, or the UCAS page. I didn’t have the authority to suggest that a page join the whitelist. Apparently the techs didn’t like it either, this was ruling from the head.

  8. My senior year of high school, the state forced my school to put in some filter- I can’t even remember the name of it now, but how we hated it. I remember that it blocked even translators (like google’s language tools). I remember once requesting that it be unblocked (which we could do) because I wanted to be able to quickly look up the translations. The reason for this was simple- I was helping a visiting student from Venezuela with an essay, and occasionally he couldn’t think of the right English word and I couldn’t think of a Spanish equivalent.

    I was told by the suspicious administrator that that did not constitute a valid reason. He refused to change it. Who knows what horrors could have been wreaked upon my young mind with unfettered access to a translator? I could have…looked up rude words or something.

  9. I’m the author of the series of blog posts Cory linked to. Thanks, Cory, and I love the Moby-Dick cover!

    This is priceless: Stumbleupon linked to my blog post on censorship. 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 the blog post. Which, of course, is as G-Rated as a 1950s Disney movie, as is the entire blog.

    Good grief!

  10. The way the state of affairs on the internet’s been going, I’m (almost) glad schools have crappy censorware: it teaches kids, even the ones who have no interest or knowledge in coding or hacking, how to circumvent it. That’ll come in handy if they ever end up in China, Australia or the (soon?) the UK.

  11. This decision is often a school board one. And School Board members aren’t required to be educators or even educated. So idiocy has a tendency to creep in.

  12. I have an idea– how about teachers make their lesson plans beforehand and store the data locally instead of telling the students to look at wikipedia during class? You know– actually be TEACHERS, not web surfers?

    1. Were my teachers, who sent us to the library to do research, abrogating their responsibilities? I had sort of gotten the impression that they were teaching us how to find things out for ourselves?

      1. “Were my teachers, who sent us to the library to do research, abrogating their responsibilities? I had sort of gotten the impression that they were teaching us how to find things out for ourselves?”

        I was speaking mainly to the issue of the teacher wanting to pull up info about the Bikini Atoll during class and not being able to. To use your analogy, that would be like the teacher planning to teach on that subject, waiting until the middle of the class, then dashing off to the library to find a copy of a book on the Bikini Atoll, only to find that someone else had checked it out. That is bad organization (and teaching) expanding on your example, and bad organization (and teaching) based on the example in the article. If you are teaching a class and know you need X material for the class, you have X material prepared and at hand before the time of the class.

        1. The teacher wanted to pull up pictures from Wikipedia. You make it sound like the teacher just said “Well, I don’t want to teach you about this subject, so go look it up on Wikipedia”, which is clearly not what happened. She wanted to show her class pictures of Bikini Atoll. Wikipedia had such pictures. The computer or computers in her classroom were internet connected. She figured that this could be used to allow the class to see the pictures. I don’t see how this makes her unprepared.

          The more apt analogy is that the teacher teaches class in the library (since the access time to Wikipedia is measured in seconds or fractions thereof), but when she went to pick up a book and show it to the class, the librarian stopped her from using it, saying “You are not allowed to use that one because there’s a naughty word in it.” Fortunately real librarians don’t do that, but filtering software certainly does.

          You can try to argue that the teacher should have photocopied the pictures from the book earlier in order to be prepared, but she had no reason to believe that it would be unavailable to her. The fundamental problem here is that the teacher was blocked from using resources which should be available to her, not that she failed to prepare for the idiocy of the blocking software.

          1. “You can try to argue that the teacher should have photocopied the pictures from the book earlier in order to be prepared, but she had no reason to believe that it would be unavailable to her.”

            I didn’t say a thing about photocopying the pages– but she could have saved any text and images she needed to a local file or folder when preparing for the lesson. There could have been other reasons for not being able to access the data, like a local network problem, or Wikipedia being off-line (as it was for a few hours a couple of days ago because of server issues.) You should not take for granted that remote information will be available to you when you want it and base your lesson on that assumption (which is one of the giant problems with “cloud” storage.) So, yes, while part of the blame lies goes to the the censorware, some of the blame lies with the teacher, too.

  13. My wife is an Art teacher and has run in to the same thing. She wants to use Google Image Search so she can show the students famous artwork, but that’s blocked. For now, she has to Bing’s image search, but it’s only a matter of time before that is blocked as well.

  14. The college at which I am taking an Adult Education course – which is, by definition, FULL OF ADULTS, uses Bloxx, which appears impossible to circumvent*. The idiotic way in which this is set up means that I cannot view example source code for my IT classes (‘unauthorised software downloads’, apparently). Neither can I read an article on new network protocols, or advances in 3G (‘mobile telephony’, also banned). Apparently, those doing social work/healthcare courses don’t have it any easier (SERIOUS minefield of bad words in those two disciplines, amirite?).

    *any advice on HOW to scupper Bloxx, purely to know if it is possible would be greatly appreciated. I have my own connection, obviously, as I am a grown man with a job, house & family etc., but I really really dislike being treated like I can’t be trusted with a fully functioning internet. Especially if I am GODDAMN WELL PAYING to be somewhere to be educated and use their facilities to learn.

  15. Related: LegalTorrents has changed its name to ClearBits, because (from their press release/newsletter today):

    “Domains that include the word “torrent” are often blocked
    online (by DNS providers), and blocked on site at many corporate

    What next? The word “charity” gets associated with some obscure sexual act and all sites mentioning that word get black-holed? WTF is going on??

  16. I work for a school IT department, and we are required by someone (state, federal?) to make a ‘best effort’ attempt at preventing students (and staff) from looking at things they shouldn’t. We pretty much just subscribe to a blacklist service, but can make our own exceptions, if the teachers request them. There’s also different levels, with staff being able to click-through to certain sites (like google images) after a splash screen warning is displayed.

    Yes, some of the examples do sound pretty ridiculous, like the Bikini Atoll example. That just sounds like they need to pony up a bit of cash for a decent web filter; one that can recognize the difference. Not buying a lowest-bidder filter combined with reasonable and understanding IT admins would fix most of these problems while keeping kids from seeing what you don’t want them to see. (think about what you’ve seen on the internet. all of it. do you want your kids to have access to that at school? Holy crap, am I advocating censorship?)

  17. I teach high school Earth Science and at our school the term “Cleavage” is not blocked in a Google search, but the term “Luster” is. Both apply to mineral identification. Bizarre

  18. I’m not sure how the filters work, but when my son was in elementary school he typed in instead of gov and was surprised to see some softcore porn. And my 7-yr-old nephew tried No teddy bears there. When his mom called the Build a Bear people and told them, they apologized and sent him a nice gift certificate.

  19. Wanna know what goes into my pocket every day before school?

    A USB stick with the TOR Browser Bundle.

  20. Am guessing our ancestors didn’t teach our uh… slightly younger ancestors how to survive on the forest by removing the sabre tooth tigers and acid spitting daisies first.

    WWGD?: What would Ghrughr do?

  21. I heard a story about a certain Town council in South Humberside/North Lincolnshire that when they turned on there brand new email spam filter could neither send nor receive any email. The name of the town? Scunthorpe.

  22. To add a slightly different take on this topic. By using filtering (which most will work around anyway), are schools sending a message that’s at odds with the very ideals of a democratic society? How will students learn to responsibly used the internet if schools approach it from a technological perspective rather than an ethical one? Does having filters in place allow schools to avoid the tougher job of education in this area?

    I write more about this topic here:

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