Monday’s CNET Australia article “NSW to censor student laptops” is both surprising and saddening. How can a government official stand up and boldly claim, “Our Internet filtering scheme is unbreakable?” I’m not sure this can be done credibly, yet that is what officials down under are doing. In the name of “internet safety” they are whitelisting the entire web:

… [NSW Department of Education and Training (DET)] chief information officer [Stephen] Wilson detailed the “unbreakable” filtering system that would control students’ internet experience on the proposed laptops.

“Our internet filtering is unbreakable. We have a huge proxy array that does all the filtering. We’ve just brought that in-house and the reason we have done that is we want much tighter control over it,” said Wilson.

DET has developed 98 categories of websites that are accessible to students. “Every internet site that’s known is actually categorised. If it isn’t known, it’s blocked. If you go to a site and it’s not categorised you can’t get to it,” he said.

I continue to be an advocate for reasonable content filtering in schools as well as homes, but I am categorically opposed to a scheme where any official (government or otherwise) attempts to whitelist the entire Internet. Whitelisting known and approved websites can be a reasonable approach for preK and very young primary-age school children, but is ludicrous for older elementary and secondary age students.

Hyperlinked text is the foundational concept and technological breakthrough of the modern World-Wide Web. The idea of wanting to protect children from inappropriate and offensive content online is laudable as well as important, but it can certainly be carried too far. This situation in New South Wales, Australia, is a case in point.

No content filtering system is perfect and “unbreakable.” Essentially, with these statements I think Mr. Wilson has effectively “thrown down the glove” to current or would-be student hackers in Australia. Proxy servers do pose formidable challenges for school officials tasked with helping protect young minds online at school, and I’m sure the need to address proxy server risks is a driving reason behind this governmental policy to whitelist the web. We must remember, however, that our role as educators is not to metaphorically herd cattle in a pen, but rather teach young birds how to take wing and fly. How are Australian teachers and students going to learn about digital citizenship on a network where every accessible website must be whitelisted? How are learners going to use the web to regularly create, collaborate, and communicate with others? Most likely, they are not.

Are educational leaders in NSW running schools or prisons? That is a legitimate question to ask, which I posed in October 2007 in the post, “Content Filtering in Schools: Striving to CONTROL user behavior.” The censorship aspects of this type of draconian content filtering should not be ignored or taken lightly. As I noted in that post a year ago:

In a purely analog world, censorship like this could be more visible. A book burning event was held in a public square, I think, to draw attention to the fact that the authorities not only philosophically opposed but physically opposed the reading of certain “banned works.” In a digital world, censorship and content filtering like this is not as visible as a book burning event in the public square. The chilling effects of digital censorship on the sharing and communication of ideas can be just as severe, however.

Where would you expect to find more censorship of ideas and communication, in communist China or in an Oklahoma school? How about a school in New South Wales? The answers may surprise you.

Will there be a public outcry in Australia over these filtering policies? Will people brave and knowledgeable enough to openly criticize government policy be shouted down by the claim, “We’re only acting to protect the children?!”

As in so many other cases, this is an opportunity for leadership. Will the real educational leaders in New South Wales please step forward, and help the government adopt a more reasonable, proactive, and sensible policy for Internet content filtering for students?

Thanks to Brett Moller for alerting me to this article this evening.

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  • Dave

    I’m a volunteer assistant at a NSW school and was thinking about this today when once again I was unable to show a teacher something (a school volunteers wikispaces site I have set up) because it was blocked. I can think of 3 reasons why they implement such an extensive filtering scheme:
    The best being that they naively think they are helping and protecting our students
    Worse is that they don’t want to accept responsibility and not be liable for students using the internet inappropriately – even though there is no government policy for internet usage outside of school which many students would have access to anyway.
    The worst is that they are implementing politics of fear – implying a dangerous situation that they are coming to the rescue to solve. This has unfortunately being a trend in Australia in recent years.
    I would like to see – as I have heard you say – schools taking the opportunity to help students become responsible users both in and out of school.

  • http://mr-rezac.blogspot.com/2008/10/about-drop-box-collaboration.html drezac

    This is interesting. My school is just beginning to build policies around Web 2.0 and I’m trying to implement an AUP that covers everything, if that is even possible.

    I’m also interested in the collaborative nature of technology, and it all comes down to vision. If a district is blocking things like wikis, then their Vision for tech is really skewed. I welcome problems like this because it teaches us how to react. Plus, this is an example for us to learn how to build our own plans and responses.

    Daniel Rezac

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