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September 6, 2007 / Ben Chun

Surfing Safe

I just got done setting up an SSH tunnel from work to home, so that I can get to the educational resources I need without being blocked by the school district’s web filter. While it feels a bit odd to admit this, I think it’s important to talk about how the way SFUSD filters right now — because it isn’t working. For example: Google Image search is blocked (and has been since 2004) but students all know to use the image search at images.google.ca. So what does the block accomplish?

Worse, some of the things I want students to work on or research for their Academy classes and technology classes are blocked by keyword: searches on terms like “proxy” or “games” are stopped completely, before we can even see the Google results page. Of course, these blocks don’t stop students from getting on the various social networking web sites. They don’t stop students from putting the Starcraft executable on a USB key and having LAN parties in the computer labs. And for some reason, even though you can’t search anything involving the term “games” on Google, games.yahoo.com is not blocked. How does this help us as educators?

Instead of heavy-handed, indiscriminate filtering, what we need is a combination of good filtering to keep out the porn and adware/spyware, teacher control over specific classroom filters, and direct teaching about what’s acceptable use and what’s not. For example, in my senior programming class that focuses on video game design, I would like students to be reading about game industry news and looking at forums and other game-related web sites. In my freshman classes, I appreciate those sites being blocked. But in any class, if students find inappropriate content, I see that as an opportunity to discuss our own responsibilities and decisions in a world where so much information is so easily searchable.

As far as search, I think a good step would be to have a way to ensure that the Google SafeSearch filters are always turned on at school. That’s not perfect either, I know, but it seems like a decent starting point. Since Google is both under more scrutiny and has more resources to devote to the problem than a school district, why not rely on their work? I made this suggestion to Google recently: set up a subdomain like safe.google.com that only runs searches with SafeSearch turned on. School districts could block access to the regular Google pages but still allow students to use the full functionality of the search engine through safe.google.com.

8 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Dan Meyer / Sep 6 2007 7:06 pm

    Full feeds for your fans!

  2. Fred / Dec 8 2007 10:50 pm

    There is a site that works quite well, http://www.safe-google.com

  3. Ben Chun / Feb 3 2008 10:58 am

    It looks to me like safe-google.com just forwards you to the corresponding Google query with SafeSearch turned on. Which is nice and everything, but doesn’t really get us anywhere in terms of enforcement.

  4. Denahli / Jun 4 2008 6:37 am

    as a 9th grader in sfusd i find the blocks a little extreme. at my house we dont have a printer. so i send my homework to my facebook and print it out at school. now i can’t because facebook is blocked so i can’t anymore. it causes issues in my work which lowers my grade. i can see why there would be restriction on porn and saerching but not on facebook or myspace. its not like we get our work done faster because its blocked. its a pontless attemp by the sfusd to make it seem like they have the authority under control. WRONG it is soooo easy o find ways to hack the system. why even bother blocking it? no clue.

  5. Ben Chun / Jun 4 2008 7:52 am

    Denahli, I think it’s great that you’ve figured out how to work around your lack of printer at home. My suggestion to you would be that you send your homework to an email account (not Facebook) since there is no rule against using email, and it will not be blocked. If you don’t have an email address, you can get one free at gmail.com

    Your point that students can trivially circumvent the blocking system is well taken. I would still advise you to follow the rules if possible, and in this case it’s just as easy to use email as it is to use Facebook to send yourself your homework.

  6. Misho M. ILIEV / Aug 19 2008 12:11 pm

    I think the problem with safe-google.com can easily be solved.

    In FireFox you have to switch the filter on and prohibit:
    http://www.google.com/

    Be sure before doing that to select strict filtering in the prefernces and to save them.

    In the allowed sites type in: http://www.google.com/custom

    This way you disallow the main page of google.com but you can still use http://www.safe-google.com

    You could block as well these:

    http://www.google.com/advanced_search?hl=en
    http://www.google.com/preferences?hl=en

    So you are sure noone will ever be able to change the preferences. Of course now the advanced search in Google is blocked as well.

    This is not the whole story, howevere.

    You have to block all other googles in the world.

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