Web filters to remain for forseeable future

The new computers that the Upper School received at the end of the previous school year have come with new and improved technology as well as a more aggressive web filtering system. This new web filtering system arose as a result of the older filter’s problems.

“The old system went down on a monthly basis,” said Colleen Glaude, Dean of Instructional Technology. “It would take all of our Internet down as well and it was extremely unreliable.”

Students and teachers alike have been confused and frustrated by the sites and searches that have been blocked or have not yet been blocked.

Tumblr, a microblogging platform popular among students and teachers alike, has been blocked by the new filtering system.

“Tumblr is a great artist community. Many professional [artists] use Tumblr,” said Kristin Brown, art teacher. “But since it is blocked, I am not able to show my students the artists who only publish their works on Tumblr.”

Though Tumblr has legitimate uses, it can also be used inappropriately, said Jim Justice, assistant head of the Upper School.

“Tumblr is wide open. There are a lot of legitimate uses for Tumblr, but the reality is that there’s a darker side. Currently, it’s a gateway to porn,” said Justice. “I would love to move to access to Tumblr, but it would depend on Tumblr policing and cleaning itself up.”

There are many other websites that students believe that could be unblocked.

“There are websites, like 9gag.com and ifunny.com, that people like to use, but there doesn’t seem to be a reason for them to be blocked,” said junior Michael Wilson. “I think that sites that aren’t really that bad should be unblocked.”

It is not just blocked websites that have confused many. Searches for things that seem harmless, like “Mona Lisa” and “squid” have been blocked.

“I think that the blocking software is pretty ridiculous,” said junior Catherine Benedict. “It’s too much like Big Brother in 1984.”

Searches for these kinds of terms, however, are not supposed to be blocked.

“This is not supposed to happen,” said Glaude. “Technically, any word should be able to be searched for. When something inappropriate comes up as a result, that certain thing will be blocked, not the entire search.”

In addition, searches that include the term “lesbian” and “trans” been blocked as well, which teachers, like Brown, and students, like Benedict, have found to be disappointing and unfortunate.

“I found that the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘trans’ were blocked, but the word ‘gay’ is allowed. It’s almost homophobic,” said Benedict. “We should be able to make choices for ourselves. High school is stage where so many people are questioning their sexuality.”

Students have also noticed that there are many problems evident with the new filtering system, especially when one word is blocked specifically.

“I know that some people wanted to look up ‘sex trafficking’ for a project,” said Wilson. “I understand that they have to block the search term ‘sex,’ but having specific terms unblocked would be a lot smoother.”

“The term “sex trafficking” triggers the filters,” said Glaude, “since it is an illegal activity.”

A search term that some have found to be potentially harmful to adolescents is “pro-anorexia,” yet it is not blocked. “Pro-anorexia” sites are forums and online communities that support and perpetuate eating disorders. Sites like these are crawling with eating disordered individuals, congratulating each other on their disease and trading “tips” to further their self-destruction.

“Pro-ana is shorthand for pro-anorexia, but pro-ana sites promote a wide range of destructive behavior,” said junior Maya Bradford. “Anyone can go on these sites and see tips for purging, for laxatives, for fasting, for hiding weight loss from parents and doctors. Any site with any sort of pro-ana connotation is inherently dangerous.”

The content filter allows complete student access to such sites, however.

“Since anorexia is not illegal, nor explicit, the content filter does not block this for Upper School students,” said Glaude. “Should anyone find a specific pro anorexic site completely inappropriate, they can submit the URL for the Upper School Admin Team to review to have it blocked.”

Unfortunately, there are countless sites that promote eating disordered behavior.

“There are so many pro-ana sites out there, it would be impossible to eradicate them individually,” said Bradford. “Westminster obviously has the technical capacity to block all sites of this nature, so they should block them in order to protect the safety and well being of their students.”

According to the administration, the line between what is inappropriate and appropriate is whether or not it promotes illegal activity or pornographic material.

“The Upper School policy was to let as much stuff go as possible, but the school has to be very careful and has to reduce risk,” said Mark Labouchere, lead technology integration specialist. “It’s a balance between security and freedom.”

But Cotter believes that the filter has come at a cost.

“The effectiveness of the filter at blocking inappropriate searches,” said Cotter, “has come at the cost of blocking websites and searches that should be deemed appropriate.”

Some believe that previous policies were effective and better.

“In 8th grade, when [the juniors] first got the computers, I believe that there was no filtering system until 2nd semester,” said Wilson. “I don’t think there were any reported issues before the blocks, but when the blocks did get added, everyone got really upset. I think that if we didn’t have a filtering system, it would work better and there would be less complaints.”

But the filters will never be fully removed.

“[Removing the filters] is not a matter of responsibility on the students part, but rather a responsibility on the school’s part,” said Glaude. “We are responsible for ensuring that the digital tools that we provide to students are educationally appropriate, i.e., no access to porn or illegal activity.”

As a result, the best way to change how the system filters is to submit the search or website for review.

“We’ve had some challenges. But it seems to be getting better,” said Justice. “The filter depends on students pointing out things that are getting blocked that shouldn’t be.”