Today I was interested to learn Flickr prohibits the use of some URL shortened links, including tinyurl and bit.ly.

No bit.ly or tinyurl.com URLs allowed on Flickr.

This was surprising as well as annoying, since some complicated web links do not display properly in Flickr’s description area when they are inserted with basic HTML link code. That makes a URL shortening service quite handy. Generally I use either bit.ly or tinyurl, and I didn’t spend more time this morning looking for a URL shortening service which DOES work with Flickr currently. If you know of one, please let me know via a comment here.

I learned over a year ago that the content filters employed by many school districts block URL shorteners. This is a real pain if you’re accessing Twitter, since TONS of links there are shared via shortened URLs. It’s also a pain if you use URL shorteners in email messages sent to educators on school networks. Long URLs are sometimes truncated by certain email clients, or cut off / broken by email programs which insert line breaks. This frequently happens when email messages are forwarded on repeatedly. One way to workaround this problem is to use a shorter web address created with a URL shortener. If that web shortener service is blocked in the school, however, that link is also rendered useless unless the recipient knows to use a free service like untiny or unshorten.

bit.ly for wfryer account - 6 Dec 2009

Are URL shortening websites evil? Do they deserve the bad rap they apparently have, and are school content filtering czars justified in including these websites on blacklists, to protect thousands of educators from the distracting horrors of Twitter reading? (sarcasm here)

In his April 2009 post, “Why URL shorteners suck,” Cory Doctorow identifies several common criticisms of these sites: They are sometimes used by spammers to redirect people to harmful websites distributing malware, and they cause additional web server demands via additional DNS lookups. The sites themselves may also go away in time, rending the originally shared links broken.

The current English WikiPedia article for URL shortening also includes some insights about why some folks regard the sites as bannable under its “Criticism” category. In addition to the problems Doctorow highlights (including linkrot and rickrolling, terms I had not encountered previously) it also cites privacy concerns:

[when using URL shorteners] Users may be exposed to privacy issues in that the link shortening service is in a position to track a user’s behaviour across many domains

Personally, I think URL shorteners are GREAT and provide a vital communications service in a world filled with 140 character messages. I never save a shortened URL on my Diigo or Delicious accounts, I save the full URLs. I use shortened URLs every day to share links on Twitter, Facebook, Plurk and Loopt, however, and would be severely limited in my ability to share hyperlinks during the day if URL shortener services were unavailable.

Are URL shortened websites blocked by the content filter at your school? Please take a moment to respond to the PollEverywhere web survey below and indicate your response.

(Poll results are available here.)

Personally I agree with one of the commenters to Doctorow’s post, who observed, “Saying tinyurl.com is ‘bad’ for you is like saying chocolate is bad for you.” While some people may abuse URL shorteners may be abused by some individuals and groups, there are also lots of legitimate and constructive uses for these sites. The fact that some people use these sites for malicious purposes should not mean the sites get blocked for EVERYONE by a locally designated digital censor.

Open access should be provided to URL shortened websites in our schools. If clicking on a shortened URL leads you to a bad place, then the source where you clicked that link shouldn’t be visited/trusted in the future. That’s a choice best left up to individuals, however, and not made by a school content filtering czar.

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  • http://drtimtyson.com/blog Tim Tyson

    I recently discovered Lessn (http://tinyurl.com/ycpa2qx) by Shaun Inman and have installed it on my personal site for experimentation. Lessn is a simple, personal url shortener that runs on your own server. So the shortened URL begins with your own domain name, a subfolder (he recommends calling it “x”) and a number assigned by your server to the URL you shortened. So, if it were installed on your site, Wes, your shortened URLs would look something like: speedofcreativity/x/123.

    I really like this notion as it has the potential to give you more information about your own links usage, affords some personal branding of links, and has a bookmarklet for shortening your URL and tweeting it right from your browser toolbar.

    Maybe such a solution would be viable for school districts worried about the things school districts worry about?

    I’ll post more about this on my blog after I’ve had the chance to play more with Lessn implementation schemes.

  • http://ryancollins.org/wp/ Ryan Collins

    Oh the irony Tim of using a Tinyurl link!

    I second the use of using your own. I whipped up a url shortner in PHP/MySQL and use it on my personal site (http://ryancollins.org/) and on our school site. Our district domains are kenton.k12.oh.us and kentoncityschools.org, which are both a little long, so this past year I also registered kcs.me for the district. Now we can make shortened links that have a pretty good chance of not being blocked by any filters.

  • Bryan

    You make many great points about the need for shortened URL’s, but I question the conclusion “Open access should be provided to URL shortened websites in our schools.
    If clicking on a shortened URL leads you to a bad place, then the
    source where you clicked that link shouldn’t be visited/trusted in the
    future. That’s a choice best left up to individuals, however, and not
    made by a school content filtering czar.” Trusting all thirteen year old boys to let their school
    administrator know when they have fond a shortened url that leads them
    to playboy type sites is not practical.
    Those czar’s are required by law to follow CIPA (http://www.mbcurl.me/PM2). Using unmoderated shorteners is about equal to unfiltered internet. The solution is to use moderated shortners, like MBCurl.me and to publicize the untiny and unshorten websites. These solutions allow the schools to continue to get the much needed technology funding and still meet the needs of educators and students in the classroom.
    There needs to be a balance between convenience and safety.

  • http://wfryer.wpengine.com Wesley Fryer

    Bryan: You’re welcome to your opinion, “Using unmoderated shorteners is about equal to unfiltered internet. The solution is to use moderated shortners,” but please don’t assert that CIPA requires that URL shorteners be blocked. It doesn’t. This is up to local districts to decide. I challenge you to provide a single case of a school E-Rate audit in which the school was found to be in non-compliance with CIPA because they were not blocking URL shortener websites. I don’t think you’ll find any cases of this. As in so many other cases I’ve heard and experienced, you are using the acronym “CIPA” and invoking a purported understanding of the law, but misrepresenting its actual requirements in defense of your own opinion.

    If thirteen year old boys in your school district are using their Internet access at school to visit pornographic sites, and your school has reasonable (but not draconian) content filtering policies in place, while that’s a situation in need of adult responses and accountability it isn’t a CIPA violation. Like a network security strategy, content filtering policies and digital citizenship programs at school demand a ‘defense in depth’ strategy with multiple levels of accountability as well as protection.

    Blocking commonly used URL shorteners today renders social media websites like Twitter almost useless for sharing links, which is one of their primary uses. This may be acceptable to authoritarian governments like those in Syria and China, but it’s not “ok” in the United States– including our public schools. It’s vital we hold each other accountable for our actions, and if our actions violate a local policy then we should face consequences. It’s not reasonable, however, to deny an entire class of user on a school network (including ‘students’) access to an important and constructively powerful resource like Twitter and URL shorteners based on the fact that some people may abuse or do abuse their freedom to use those resources.

    “Ex abusu non arguitur in usum. (The abuse of a thing is no argument against its use.) Reference: Doug Johnson’s post “BFTP: Rules for Pod People and a Proposal to Ban Pencils” from October 2010:
    http://doug-johnson.squarespace.com/blue-skunk-blog/2010/10/1/bftp-rules-for-pod-people-and-a-proposal-to-ban-pencils.html

  • http://wfryer.wpengine.com Wesley Fryer

    Bryan: You’re welcome to your opinion, “Using unmoderated shorteners is about equal to unfiltered internet. The solution is to use moderated shortners,” but please don’t assert that CIPA requires that URL shorteners be blocked. It doesn’t. This is up to local districts to decide. I challenge you to provide a single case of a school E-Rate audit in which the school was found to be in non-compliance with CIPA because they were not blocking URL shortener websites. I don’t think you’ll find any cases of this. As in so many other cases I’ve heard and experienced, you are using the acronym “CIPA” and invoking a purported understanding of the law, but misrepresenting its actual requirements in defense of your own opinion.

    If thirteen year old boys in your school district are using their Internet access at school to visit pornographic sites, and your school has reasonable (but not draconian) content filtering policies in place, while that’s a situation in need of adult responses and accountability it isn’t a CIPA violation. Like a network security strategy, content filtering policies and digital citizenship programs at school demand a ‘defense in depth’ strategy with multiple levels of accountability as well as protection.

    Blocking commonly used URL shorteners today renders social media websites like Twitter almost useless for sharing links, which is one of their primary uses. This may be acceptable to authoritarian governments like those in Syria and China, but it’s not “ok” in the United States– including our public schools. It’s vital we hold each other accountable for our actions, and if our actions violate a local policy then we should face consequences. It’s not reasonable, however, to deny an entire class of user on a school network (including ‘students’) access to an important and constructively powerful resource like Twitter and URL shorteners based on the fact that some people may abuse or do abuse their freedom to use those resources.

    “Ex abusu non arguitur in usum. (The abuse of a thing is no argument against its use.) Reference: Doug Johnson’s post “BFTP: Rules for Pod People and a Proposal to Ban Pencils” from October 2010:
    http://doug-johnson.squarespace.com/blue-skunk-blog/2010/10/1/bftp-rules-for-pod-people-and-a-proposal-to-ban-pencils.html

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