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Firewalling

Posted: 2006-08-24

Sylvia is a high school student, starting her senior year next week.

And speaking of firewalling, I've just learned that kingpins in the Aldine ISD in Houston have officially denied teachers access to my website. Now what are they afraid of?

And just what on earth are the California folk thinking of--to deny high schoolers access to all the sites Sylvia describes (so wonderfully) in this essay? As Sylvia asks, Why on earth do schools have computers at all if they're going to so severely limit their use?

Does Sylvia sound like she needs protection from information on the Web? I don't think so. Her savvy and her indignation, expressed with such humor and such style, is great to behold.

foureyedsnail@gmail.com



I may be a member of the rebellious teenage

e-generation, but I'm not dense. I know why schools have firewalls, or more

specifically, the kind of "firewalls" that aren't there to protect your

computer from unknown invaders, but to prevent you from frolicking around on

the internet unchecked. I resent them a little, but I understand--many of my

peers would be prone to spending class time here on Myspace rather then

researching essays...or worse, looking at something far more inappropriate.

So I grudgingly concede the need for firewalls at schools and work.



But really, when schools, in their enthusiasm for censorship, put up the

Great Firewall of China around their internet connections, one begins to ask

oneself why we even have computers at all. I offer four examples from my

life, only embellished slightly for dramatic effect--the main facts are

true.



(1) We are working on a school project, a powerpoint presentation about

J.J. Johnson for jazz band. My partners and I scour the library (virtually

and physically) for research--we need three book sources!--but only manage

to find one measley paragraph and a few sentences here and there. Finally,

we turn to the internet and pull up wikipedia, which has paragraph after

paragraph of information, generally well-cited from books. To be safe (and

because I'm anal), I cross-reference with a couple other reputable sites.

Dates match up. Info looks similar--except for date of death, which I

nervously exclude, not wanting to put something incorrect.



Each at our respective library computers, we search for more websites and

type out paragraphs of likely-looking info. Library time is winding down.

We'll have to work on this more at home. I try to pull up Gmail, to email

our work so far to myself--I don't have my flash drive, and a powerpoint's

too big to fit on a floppy. Of course, Gmail is blocked.



Hotmail is blocked too, and Yahoo mail (which used to be accessible, but

someone found us out, alas). Were not my classmates quite savvy, all my work

would have been for naught. However, we find that the Canadian Yahoo mail is

not yet blocked, and go through that way. A few weeks later, we explain it

to a teacher, who is having difficulty getting work from her home computer

to her school one.



I think everybody on campus has a Yahoo account now (in Canadian, eh), but

frankly it's only a matter of time before they catch that one too. Then

we'll have to get creative.



(2) Some months before, it is chem class, and our teacher is trying to get

us to memorize the solubility rules for ions. It is (roughly) to the tune of

99 bottles of beer on the wall. It goes like this:



"Potassium, sodium, and ammonium salts

Whatever they may be

Can always be depended on

For solubility!"



She is trying to show us a few more songs pertaining to chemistry,

including one with kittens that sing "I'm Glad That I'm Not Soluble," and

one whose refrain is "1s2, 2s2, and then comes 2p6! This electron

configuration game is really slick." If you don't know what I'm talking

about--well, you can't understand the levels of geekdom. I am, of course,

very amused.



After some time of fiddling with her computer, she gives up in disgust. The

school has blocked some of her chem curriculum sites--including ones a bit

more serious than singing, soluble kittens. Us students crowd around and

offer advice about how to circumvent the firewall, but once someone mentions

proxies she gives up. Too difficult.



(3) Fastforward nearly a year, and it is August of 2006--band camp month.

It is the fourth day, and we've gotten a lot done in the fifteen hours we've

already spent this week. Our band teacher is bound and determined to get our

first song on the field by tomorrow.



A colorguard member calls. She is at home, without a ride. Ms. Rogers asks

if any of us can drive, know where she lives, etc--assembling a rescue

squad. Several of us (not I) can drive and have cars, but no one knows where

she lives. Ms. Rogers types her address into her office computer.



"What's the word for 'maps' in Spanish?" she yells out at us.



"Mapas?" someone shouts.



"No," she calls back. "That's not here." She's trying to get to

Yahoo!Mexico's maps, because the English ones are blocked.



"Just use mapquest!" several people offer.



"Mapquest is inaccurate!" she hollers, slightly annoyed, and we giggle a

little.



"Cartas, maybe?" I offer, judging from the French 'carte'.



"No," someone says, "That's letters."



It is a little absurd.



(4) Forward in time again, this time barely a week, and I am at my mum's

school, helping her set up the room for first graders. I am also installing

the Firefox browser on all the computers, because I am that obsessive, and I

don't trust Internet Explorer as far as I can throw it. And I throw like a

girl.



Finished installing, I flick on the browser and type in livejournal.com .

Last week (to my pleasant surprise) I could login, check my lj, write a few

comments, and go on my way. Myspace, of course, was blocked then, but that's

only to be expected.



Unfortunately, by now, livejournal is blocked--probably, I reflect sadly,

because I was on it last week. Now a little paranoid (do they know

everything I'm doing?) I set Firefox's security setting high, so I am less

traceable, hopefully. Or just so I feel better.



Thoroughly bored and not doing anything useful for the moment (Mum is

talking to another teacher), I decide to surf around a little on

Wikipedia--my favorite dorky place. Nothing like a giant encyclopedia to

keep me occupied for hours at a time.



To my surprise, wiki is blocked for "pornographic/adult content." Not parts

of it; all of it. I cannot get to a single wiki page, not even the one about

Freud's Id, Ego, and Superego (I was just getting to the good part). I am a

little floored. Wiki is the best general research tool out there. I know

teachers who teach with wiki.



Now I am vexed, and thus I refuse to allow such senseless censorship to

prevent me from remembering if Socrates was a schizophrenic or not. I try

Google's cache--that works sometimes--but alas, the district's

administrators have been there, done that, and blocked it.



Throwing caution to the winds, I google "getting around school firewalls,"

hoping that my unremarkable 'student' username and general negligence save

me from getting in trouble. As expected, most of the sites are inaccessible,

but a couple offer proxies and anonymizers and other confusing things. I

don't really want that--sounds hard, and I just want on wikipedia when I get

bored, man.



Finally, I figure out (all on my own, aren't I clever?) that putting it

through a translator site gets me access--although of course the formatting

is icky, and until I find something that goes English-to-English I'm stuck

with rather fantastically bad grammar. Socrates wasn't a schizophrenic,

though, or at least not according to wiki. Go figure, House was wrong.



A minute later, in curiosity, I put a couple other blocked sites through

the translator, seeing if they work or not. They don't. Clearly, someone is

already wise to this, too. It will only be a matter of time.



----



In theory, I don't mind internet censorship at school and work. In theory,

it allows kids (and employees) access to the world without giving them

access to the whole world; shielding young eyes from inappropriate content

and preventing adults from wasting school computer memory playing games.



But in practice, censoring programs block things like the Amnesty

International webpage. Election candidates' sites are blocked as

inappropriate on computers which 18-year-olds are using to do research

projects on them. News sites, AIDS information sites, GLBT sites, Holocaust

rememberence sites, environmentalist sites, and even one harmless little

thingamabob that "translates" the internet into smurfish for your amusement.

I kid you not, look here:

http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/people/edelman/mul-v-us/index-subset.html



I am all for keeping kids in schools off explicit sites, but this is

reaching ridiculous proportions--and it's hitting teachers too. Where does

it stop? How many sites can you block? Can a site be deemed inappropriate

because it has certain 'keywords'? And how fast can the administrators up

the security, because kids are fed up, and they are tech-savvy.



As Rob Corrdry said once in a skit for The Daily Show, (and I did get this

quote from wikipedia, yes):



"If you love freedom, set it free. If it comes back, it's yours forever. If

it doesn't...it's 1936 Stalinist Russia, have yourself a good time."



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