Censorship considered harmful

This morning, I saw that James Farmers’ Edublogs service is being banned in Australia. Censored. Blocked. Verboten. It irked me, and has been bugging me all day. Now, Brian just posted about it, and I realize I need to publicly demonstrate some form of outrage at this. It’s not enough to quietly grumble, or to simply comment on James’ blog post.

Censorship is inherently evil. The goal of censorship, by definition, is to prevent access to, or dissemination of information. Some might say it is a necessary evil, but I’d respond that it’s a very slippery slope, and that it’s far too easy to slide down past a point of no return.

Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.
John F. Kennedy

Hearing about an educational system that imposes censorship on all of its students, teachers and staff (and yes, it is imposed, as the only internet access available in the schools is provided by The Man) scares the hell out of me. Schools are supposed to foster communication. Critical thinking. Rational thought and behaviour.

And yet it appears as though an entire school system – “powered” by the EduConnect filtering mechanism – has decided that Blogs Are Bad, and Should Be Banned. They didn’t act against a specific blog. They’re not preventing kiddie porn, or spam, or phishing (but this is what they’ll say they are doing). They are blocking open communication. And that is nothing less than evil.

“Swimming pools can be dangerous for children. To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences, and deploy pool alarms. All these measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing that one can do for one’s children is to teach them to swim.”
National Research Council, Youth, Pornography, and the Internet

In the absolute best case scenario, this is simply a side effect of a lazy, outdated, authoritarian system trying to maintain the status quo. Instead of trying to educate people about information literacy, they decide it’s easier to just block access to information Just In Case™. I’m hoping this is all there is to the story, and that a public outcry might actually affect some form of change.

But, in a worst case scenario, open communication is essentially being outlawed in favour of a government-mandated censorship and filtering system. That has no place in modern society, especially in institutions of learning.

Here’s hoping things get opened up again. If they’re blocking EduBlogs.org, there’s no telling what else may be blocked.

18 thoughts on “Censorship considered harmful

  1. Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean They ain’t after you…

    I know I can wobble off the rationality rail sometimes, using apocalyptic and politicized language about restrictions placed by The Man on self-publishing spaces. But what to make of James Farmer’s edublogs.org being blocked from schools by some facel…

  2. The Trials of Podcasting and the read/write web

    Good and Evil in the Blogosphere, So my faith isn’t entirely shaken, but it is kind of like the 6 month old car – still feels new but there are some odd rattles that are beginning to be annoying. You don’t want to throw it away and get a new one but …

  3. Not just Australia either. James didn’t specify where his two commenters hailed from. In Educonnect’s defence, it could be that Bess, the filter system is overzealous by default. Aussies aren’t well known for thinking things through – if the rest of the world says that this stuff should be filtered out, then we’d better do it too!!

  4. Graham – good point about the problem not being restricted to Australia. I’m sure school and civic filters are being triggered all over the place.

    The problem is that the control is in the exact wrong place. This is not an IT decision, although the folks in charge of blocking stuff are likely the IT geeks.

  5. Censorshio considered harmful.

    This morning, I saw that James Farmers’ Edublogs service is being banned in Australia. Censored. Blocked. Verboten. It irked me, and has been bugging me all day. Now, Brian just posted about it, and I realize I need to publicly…

  6. Censorship is a word that stops me cold. It’s associated with everything that’s evil. Yet, while we must advocate for open communication, realize that schools make do with the best filtering tools they have at their disposal. I don’t like Bess/N2H2 anymore than you do, but that’s all some districts have available (for example, the service is cheaper than others since it’s provided through their Internet Service Provider). We just don’t have quality filtering tools available that can restrict access to some individuals and grant access to others…it’s an all or nothing proposition.

    While I agree that EduBlogs should be permitted, there are many “publishing” entities that allow underage children to misappropriate those virtual connectivity spaces. To be honest, EduBlogs allows me to provide an email address and create my own blog (http://mguhlinyahoocom.edublogs.org/) and that was it! I could have been a tech-savvy 12 year old girl.

    Now, I’ve argued both sides of this issue. While I don’t want to argue anymore, I thought I’d slap this conversation between parent, teacher and principal together. I’m sure better ones can be written, and will be, but this might get the juices flowing.

    But before you read that, here’s a point against your swimming pool analogy. It bugs me because the World Wide Web isn’t a swimming pool. It’s more like an ocean, or at best, a swimming hole infested with nasty critters.

    In the swimming pool analogy, if that pool had water moccasins and crocs in it…would you encourage children to swim there? Would knowing how to swim be enough or would we want to start teaching them how to “wrastle crocs” for a living? And, do we really want kids to go to the swimming hole DURING THE SCHOOL DAY?
    Maybe that’s part of the curriculum in Australia–aren’t we all Crocodile Dundee fans here?–but it seems a bit excessive. Australia has always seemed so progressive in regards to technology. What is it that they see that we don’t? Or, are they finally lagging behind the U.S.?

    THE CONVERSATION
    “We’re here to discuss your child’s behavior on a web site not controlled by the District, but that your child can access during school time. Her access of the site was to use it to bully another child, post pictures from her camera phone, and make vulgar statements.”

    “Why can my child access that type of web site from school?”

    “Sure, your child can access that web site online…we allow kids to access those sites so that we can teach them what constitutes responsible use of the Internet. Teachers like to call this a teachable moment,” says the teacher. “But, you see, this type of behavior occurs in real life. We’re not helping anyone by pretending it doesn’t happen online, too.”

    “Well, could you just teach her without letting her access the inappropriate site and exposing her to a sex pervert?” asks the parent. “There sure are a whole bunch of those around these days. And, how do you know that my child did the cyber-bullying?”

    “No, you see, it’s about kids being more connected, building skills that they need to survive. ” replies the teacher

    [in an aside to the teacher, the principal says, “Well, how do you know about the connections they’re making? They obviously didn’t keep you in the loop.” inquires the principal. He’s reviewing the police report.]

    “I model appropriate use of technology in my classroom, and your daughter agreed to follow the rules,” replies the teacher. “Since she broke the rules, we have to agree on what disciplinary action will be taken. It’s not enough that a police report is being considered for cyber-bullying another student. And, I must warn you that police action is a real possibility in this situation”

    [parent steps out for a moment]

    “I’m worried we didn’t do everything we could to prevent this from happening.The District is now liable because we trusted you and you weren’t able to keep up with the 150 kids you see every day and what they were doing when you took your eyes off one of them for a moment.” said the principal sympathetically.

    “Yes, but that’s the reality of life in a connected world,” replies the teacher. “We have to give our children the opportunity to make mistakes in a safe environment.”

    “I know, but the Web isn’t safe…they’re no longer in your classroom when they’re on the Web,” replies the principal. “And, by the way, we’re going to have to confiscate your classroom computer–the newer one that can connect to the Internet–check it for evidence, make a copy of it, then reformat it.” The teacher grimaces. “That’s happening as we speak.”

    [parent steps back into the room]

    “You know,” says the parent, “You people let my child access a web site where she could post these comments. What was it called? MySpace? At home, I control my child’s access to the Internet because I want them doing their homework. I foolishly thought she would be protected at school from bad elements on the Internet. I don’t know how any one teacher can control the situation with 20+ students in her classroom at the same time that he is teaching. At home, I told my daughter to be nice to others and not to do this type of thing, but kids are kids and she did it anyway. I’ll speak to her again. I’m worried that I trusted you and the principal to help me keep my child off-line, but you didn’t do it. After all, when she’s at home, I make sure she doesn’t go anywhere inappropriate–I unplug the Internet connection–or do these kinds of things at home. She must have done it here on a school computer while she was in your care. What are kids learning here? I don’t want her to have Internet access while at school anymore.”

    “Oh,” replies the teacher, “That’s not an option. Haven’t you heard? ‘The World is Flat’ and our kids need to be connected so that they can learn how to act in a global, connected community where online collaboration is critical to our economic survival as a nation. The Internet is a required part of the curriculum, and we have to take disciplinary action when a student makes a poor choice. That’s what’s happened here. Now, let’s put together a contract about how to prevent your child from doing this again. She’ll sign it and we’ll continue to work together”

    [a contract is put together and prepared for review with the student]

    “Ok,” replies the parent. “Thank you. In the future, why don’t you IM me about that and give me status reports on his/her progress? Do you use Yahoo, MSN or AOL Instant Messenger?”

    “Uhh,” stutters the teacher.

    “Instant Messaging is blocked,” shares the principal. “We don’t allow it because of the SPIM, and/or the viruses that are transmitted via Instant messaging.”

    “You mean,” the parent smiles grimly, “the District blocks IM but not MySpace and those other web sites where kids can do anything, including creating bully-blogs to pick on each other or get stalked by cyber-predators?”

    Silence.

    “That’s correct,” the principal replies slowly. “We’re developing a policy on blogging sites, however. There’s been a big debate about the benefits of blogging and teachers really want to use this new technology with their students.”

    The parent leaves. The teacher settles into the chair…it’s a long day. The principal stares at the teacher for a moment, sighs, picks up the phone and calls his secretary. He says in a weary voice, “Send the next one in”

    END CONVERSATION

    Now, to be honest, this is terribly written. The best defense against this type of attack isn’t long explanations as to why this type of online conversation (e.g. blogging) is essential to our survival, or because we’re afraid of whatever. The best defense is success stories about how blogs and other Read/Write Web technologies are being used to foster communications at higher levels of technology implementation (LOTI). That’s the best offensive measure. You have to create so many good stories that people will look at the bad examples and say, “You know, those are the exceptions rather than the rule.” If you try to reason this out, you’ll lose everytime. I know…you see, I’m an administrator and I’m aware of two truths that gung-ho idealistic teachers always forget (having been one myself, I can attest to the veracity of this):

    1) Perception is Reality.

    2) A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.

    Blog on!

    Miguel Guhlin
    http://www.mguhlin.net/blog

  7. The issue of internet filtering is very touchy. From my point of view being an advocate of parental internet filtering, the schools should filter as much as possible because the parents are not there to monitor their childrens internet use.

    If it was the contrary then there would be no control and the parents would most probably petition for filtering or worst ask to remove internet access in the schools.

    This is very disappointing I know, but with proper filtering ( no blanket filtering for nothing ), an balance can be found I\’m sure.

  8. PIC – I don’t agree. I’ve seen far too many cases where students (AND TEACHERS!) were not able to access legitimate software and resources for me to think filtering is anything but obstructive. Kids don’t have internet filtering at home. They don’t have it on the free wireless with their latte at Starbucks. Filtering in the school just tells them to go elsewhere, and tells the kids they aren’t to be trusted. Not the message I want for my son.

  9. Even art websites are being banned. Deviantart IS a social networking site, but it’s been an art site ever since it was formed (I think eleven years ago). Art has always been under attack, even when it’s been proven that students need art to help their thinking processes. I’m in fact making a PSA about censorship and I’m waiting to see if I’ve got the go-ahead to do it.

      1. I wish I could. I’m still in high school and my proposal has to be approved by my teacher before anything can be done. If I had the equipment at home, it’d have been on the internet already.

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