Safety first?

Safety first?

Summary: How do we keep our kids safe online and comply with federal regulations while still maintaining highly functional computer facilities?

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TOPICS: Browser
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I'm all for protecting kids on the Internet.  I doubt that I'm the only IT guy (or gal) out there who would like to keep kids from being stalked on Myspace and downloading video from the latest fetish site.

However, I'm also sure that I'm not the only IT guy (or gal) out there who doesn't struggle regularly to balance functionality with effective content filtering.  Obviously we can't specifically block every naughty website on the Net.  It's difficult to find hard numbers on this, but figures floating around range from 300,000 to almost 2 million pornographic sites on the web.  This doesn't even begin to include all of the sites with drug, hate, and any of several other categories of potentially objectionable content.

So most of us subscribe to some sort of content filtering service, often via a firewall or proxy server.  This leaves it up to an external vendor to decide which websites are "objectionable."  Some services and/or software also allow administrators to block certain keywords that can be filtered out of http traffic.  Don't get me wrong.  This is by no means an anti-censorship rant.  As I noted, I'm all about keeping our kids safe online, and, for that matter, making sure that teachers and staff are using Internet resources for what the 2001 Childhood Internet Protection Act refers to as "bona fide research," rather than surfing for the latest ways to make crystal meth in their basements. 

Rather, this is one IT guy's dilemma: How do I ensure high performance on an already overtaxed network, provide students and staff with a wide variety of diverse content for that above-mentioned bona fide research, keep parents and school committees happy, and continue to comply with the also above-mentioned Children's Internet Protection Act?

By disabling content filtering, I am able to increase download speeds by as much as 20-30%, especially in bandwidth-intensive applications (like our mission-critical web-based student database).  Similarly, I avoid teachers asking me 2-3 times a week to unblock a particular legitimate educational site relating to sex education, Nazi war crimes, drug education, or any number of other sites blocked by our content filters.  At the same time, the minute students get a whiff of the fact that "the firewall's down," videos can't stream fast enough to keep up with an awful lot of very frustrated teenagers.

I have no doubt that some of this could be improved with better hardware, better vendors, and better software.  However, the balancing act between performance, usability, and usefulness vs. safety, appropriateness, and continued government funding will be ongoing, regardless.

So here is my challenge to all of the readers of this blog: How do you do it?  How do you strike that balance and how do you provide the best, most appropriate service to your end users?  Please talk back to share your thoughts and ideas and let all of us struggling educational IT guys (and gals) know what works, what doesn't, and where you'd like to see technology go in the next few years to address this ongoing problem.

Topic: Browser

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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5 comments
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  • Some thoughts ...

    Christopher, good article.

    The phrase that jumped out at me was -

    'At the same time, the minute students get a whiff of the fact that "the firewall's down," videos can't stream fast enough to keep up with an awful lot of very frustrated teenagers.'

    - part of the problem here is that your students know they can get away with audio/video streaming without consequence. A prohibition of such conduct needs to be written into your school's 'student code of conduct' and enforced as you would enforce any other violation of civil student conduct -- same with accessing porn sites. Plus, your students need to be aware that this streaming is punishable as a felony if copyright infringement is involved -- should your school be served with a search warrant for copyright infringement, you will have no choice but to turn over your records.

    Of course, such conduct is hard to enforce unless your students have to log onto your network (through ADS or similar mechanism).

    I can think of a couple of other technical solutions as well. If you need to keep these filters up on student-used workstations, you could isolate student workstations from instructor workstations by putting them on separate (VLAN or physical) subnets -- one with filters, one without.

    If you have wireless, you could require students and faculty alike to "register" their MAC addresses in order to gain wireless access, and then filter based upon which group a register workstation is in.

    As for streaming itself, you can block ports at your perimeter firewall, giving you all of the bandwidth you need for your mission-critical stuff inside the firewall.

    If your students have some limited need for streaming, you can 'throttle back' your perimeter routers for those streaming protocols being delivered to student-used workstations.

    If students do not have a login, you might consider using VPN for unfiltered services. Give faculty VPN access and permit students similar access only with faculty sponsorship -- and only for a specified period of time, after which their VPN login expires. If the student is notified at the time of the granting of VPN privileges that they are subject to your 'IT code of conduct', you can avoid any 'plausible deniability' claims.

    - Marc Wagner
    M Wagner
    • Good thoughts

      Thanks a lot, Marc - these are good suggestions, some of which we're already beginning to move on. For example, we are splitting teacher/student traffic into two subnets with different filtering for each. I really like the idea of registering MAC addresses for wireless access - At the very least this would keep every kid with a Nintendo DS or Sony PSP from gaming over our network.

      Thanks again,
      Chris
      mrdatahs
  • the real worth to all of us, our children

    the whole of all of our future...is the safe guard of up brinning of the youth ... this is the most important part of our furture `s future ... they will need a well rounded and not a desensitized view of a healthy and responsible society...while understanding the impoertance of or freedoms and the responsiblity they bring...if this means sensorship in the ways of human compassion and the way the web is used we should see this as a very necessary tool not a henderance or simple inconvience,. lets invest or time and energies "or technologies" to safegaurd or most precious resource ,or children they are our future's future...this should be self evident...we should all be asking why isn't it?!!!
    Have we already become desensitized ourselves .................................
    techblair2002@yahoo.com
    techdebwa@...
  • the real worth to all of us, is our youth....

    the whole of all of our future...is the safe guard of upbringing of t he youth ... this is the most important part of our furture `s future ... they will need a well rounded and not a desensitized view of a healthy and responsible society...while understanding the impoertance of or freedoms and the responsiblity they bring...if this means sensorship in the ways of human compassion and the way the web is used we should see this as a very necessary tool not a henderance or simple inconvience,. lets invest or time and energies "or technologies" to safegaurd or most precious resource ,or children they are our future's future...this should be self evident...we should all be asking why isn't it?!!!
    Have we already become desensitized ourselves .................................
    techblair2002@yahoo.com
    techdebwa@...
  • To this i must say ....

    The whole of all of our future...is the safe guard of the upbringing of our youth ... This is the most important part of our furture `s future ... They will need a well rounded and not a desensitized view of a healthy and responsible society...While understanding the importance of or freedoms and the responsiblity they bring...If this means sensorship in the ways of human compassion and the way the web is used we should see this as a very necessary tool not a henderance or simple inconvience,. Lets invest or time and energies "or technologies" to safegaurd or most precious resource ,Our children they are our future's future...This should be self evident...We should all be asking why isn't it?!!!
    Have we already become desensitized ourselves............................ .................................
    techblair2002@yahoo.com
    TECHBLAIR2002@...