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Firewalling

Publication Date: 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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