Working for five years as I did in a higher education setting, and previously for six years in K-12 schools, I’ve recognized the differences between content filtering environments in higher ed and K12 for a long time. During my most recent years in higher education, 2001 through 2006, Napster had shut down but helped usher in a new generation of the peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing technologies which have been the bane of Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) as well as other groups seeking to stop Internet users from illegally sharing copies of digital music, videos, and copyrighted computer programs. While I worked at the university, file sharing became such a huge problem the network administrators actually re-architected the network to segment off the student dorms. File downloads from students in the dorms had begun to consume so much bandwdith, the bandwidth available to academic units at the university had started feeling a pinch. Students in dorms had to sign agreements they would not download or share copyrighted songs or movies, and I heard stories of students running P2P programs and getting their dorm Internet connection shut off as a result, albeit temporarily. Although at the time university personnel were monitoring the ports being utilized on the network, an actual content filter was never used (as far as I know) on the academic network. That environment of unfiltered Internet access in the university environment contrasted sharply, of course, with the situation in public K-12 schools. For two primary reasons, the proliferation of malware and hacker security threats over the Internet, as well as the growth in objectionable/offensive websites not appropriate for young students (and in many cases, arguably, people of any age) strict content filtering was and continues to be enforced on all the K-12 public school networks with which I am familiar in the United States.

Nate Anderson’s article for ars technica today, “2008 shaping up to be “Year of Filters” at colleges, ISPs,” highlights a series of initiatives underway in the United States which are likely to bring content filtering to a college campus near you.

I am a supporter of CIPA, the Children’s Internet Protection Act, in the United States. We SHOULD, in my view, provide a basic level of content filtering in our schools and libraries not only because it is the law (for U.S. schools and libraries which receive E-Rate funding) but also because it is the right thing to do. David Burt’s post today, ‘”tens of thousands of pornographic Web pages every day” at Dallas Public Library’ highlights today’s Dallas Morning News article “On Dallas library computers, porn is a regular sight” which states:

Viewing hard-core pornography is as easy as obtaining a Dallas library card. At the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library downtown, patrons access the Internet to review bus schedules, shop for shoes, read news articles, play online games and study history. But a Dallas Morning News analysis shows tens of thousands of pornographic Web pages flash across the screens each day as well. And at Dallas’ central library, the practice of patrons viewing explicit Internet material is commonplace, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis of Web pages accessed on J. Erik Jonsson Central Library public computers and stored on the city’s computer server. During a 45-minute period on Dec. 19, for example, central library computer users accessed more than 5,200 Web pages containing identifiably pornographic material, such as photographs depicting full nudity, intercourse and other sex acts. That figure represents about 7.5 percent of the more than 69,000 Web pages accessed on the central library’s public computers during the time period studied.

I discovered the free network Internet filtering solution OpenDNS over the recent Christmas holidays, and have been recommending it to many different people as a home as well as organizational approach to the issue of content filtering. In my view, the Dallas Public Library would be well advised to configure its computers to use OpenDNS and enable blocking of “adult websites.” That is a free and relatively effective way to deal with the problems which evidently are widespread with patrons using the library to surf for pornography. Of course NO solution can be entirely effective to prevent access of ANY objectionable content on the web, but in my view that would be the wrong goal. Providing a basic level of content filtering IS both reasonable and warranted, while draconian censorship is not. OpenDNS is not only free, it is also readily configurable: Library network administrators simply need to use the OpenDNS IP addresses on the library’s router and whoa-la, the entire library network is suddenly content filtered.

While I support CIPA and content filtering for inappropriate content in schools, libraries, homes, and other locations, I am much more wary of proposals which support traffic shaping. CIPA and a basic level of content filtering for schools and other locations is a good idea, but the law has been (and continues to be) implemented in draconian ways in U.S. schools that might shock many people. As I documented in September following my return from the Learning 2.0 conference in Shanghai, China, the communist/totalitarian government of China filters the internet LESS STRICTLY than most of our schools in the state of Oklahoma, where I live and work. CIPA implementation in U.S. public schools has become a train wreck for several reasons, but a basic reason is that technologies which purport to enable administrators to control a broad set of human choices tend to encourage a culture of control and sweeping censorship. Given the authoritarian, controlling culture pre-existing in most U.S. public schools, it is probably not a surprise that Internet content filtering has evolved in the way it has following CIPA. When a network administrator is presented with check-box options which permit ALL blogs, ALL wikis, and most “personal homepages” to be completely blocked from access on the school network, unfortunately many choose “all of the above.” The U.S. is a litigious society, and many school officials can jump no higher than when someone shouts “lawsuit threat.” The result of this mixed bag of factors is a highly censored networking environment in most public schools, and this situation needs to be constructively addressed. As I wrote in September in the post, “Living in the era of the digital cavemen and cavewomen,” we should maintain our perspectives amidst such rapid changes in the information and technological landscape. Certainly schools can’t be expected to change overnight. It IS reasonable to expect schools to change constructively in light of the learning, creation and collaboration potentials offered within our digital inforverse, however, but unfortunately I don’t see many signs today of educational change which I would judge to be in the “right direction.”

I am wary of proposals which support packet shaping because I fear, like CIPA and the implementation of it we’ve seen by schools, there is a high risk that new laws created with the goal of controlling user behavior will be implemented in draconian and destructive ways, counter-productive to the goal of encouraging a creative, innovative, and FREE society. I doubt laws passed as a result of fervent lobbying efforts of groups like the MPAA and RIAA will serve the larger collective interests of society.

Incidentally, Dr. Larry Lessig’s book “The Future of Ideas” is now available as a free eBook download. Dr. Lessig’s thoughts as well as a series of five recorded lectures by Dr. Ramesh Johari titled “The Future of the Internet” from Stanford University are the top two resources I’d commend to others wanting more background reading on these topics. I wrote a bit about my own thoughts regarding both of these authors and their viewpoints in the post, “Understanding Internet architecture, a need for smarter networks, TCP and UDP differences” back in September.

Issues of content filtering as well as packet shaping are very sensitive, and I am doing my best to be both careful and deliberate in selecting my words in this post. In my view, providing a basic level of content filtering (particularly when it can be done FREE and network-wide using OpenDNS) is a good idea, but should not be grouped into the same category as proposals which seek to packet inspect for the purpose of shutting down illegal file sharing. Those issues come up in a single conversation, but I see them as very different animals.

I’ve read last January’s Wall Street Journal article “The Coming ExaFlood,” and most recently scanned the press release by the Nemertes Research Group “User Demand for the Internet Could Outpace Network Capacity by 2010.” That article summarizes the November 2007 report “The Internet Singularity, Delayed: Why Limits in Internet Capacity Will Stifle Innovation on the Web,” which could be read to support policies for smarter networks and greater levels of “network management” by ISPs as well as others. One problem in this case, of course, is these are highly complex issues, and people often want to oversimplify them. I cannot predict the future, but I suspect ars technica author Nate Anderson is correct in hypothesizing we’ll see more discussions about content filtering and packet shaping in universities as well as other contexts in the months ahead.

Let’s hope the results of those discussions don’t become the train wreck CIPA has for our schools and the causes of both digital literacy as well as technological workforce development.

Train Wrech image from WikiPedia

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