Censorship High

A 17-year-old takes a stand against a school Web-filtering system that screens out Planned Parenthood but not the Christian Coalition.

Published June 14, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

I was the first student to surf the Web from Foothill High School's new T-1 line. The school's high-speed Internet link had been installed over the summer and I came to school two weeks early to test it out. At that time there was no formalized Internet use policy, no disabled services, no blocked sites, no censorship. And no, I didn't use it to check out a porn site; the first Web site visited by a student in the Tustin Unified School District was CNN.

For the first few months of the new school year we were free. The nerds in the technology classes used the high-speed network for downloading files and gathering information, checking their e-mail and messaging their friends. We were in heaven, and we knew it wouldn't last.

Tustin Unified School District, in Orange County roughly midway between Anaheim and Irvine, is your typical middle-class suburban school system. Like all public school systems, TUSD is working hard to deliver on the vision of the wired classroom. To further this goal, the district applied for and received a technology grant from the federal government. I was on the Digital High School planning committee, and I was the first to bring up the issue of ensuring fair and equitable access for students to online information. Not much was made of it at the time.

As time went on and classrooms were brought online, the district oversight became more strict. Using a security tool called a firewall, the district restricted students' access to Internet services like instant messaging, streaming video and online games. One of our students set up a Linux computer, but was quickly told to remove it from the network. No specific reason was given, but we assumed that it was another issue of control. If you don't understand it, ban it.

Our acceptable-use policy explicitly prohibits posting messages on chat rooms, message boards or mailing lists. We can't do anything on our school computers that might cause us any material gain. Stock trading is out, as are online auctions, job searches and product price comparisons. In practice, these rules were rarely followed, as teachers turned a blind eye to blatant violations of the overbroad district policy.

But the administrators' cautiousness extended to other technologies too. They blocked Telnet, a text communications system for dialing in to other computers. Now I could no longer log in to my home system. They blocked FTP, so we could no longer transfer files to and from school. We had expected this to some degree; bureaucrats are overly cautious, and with all the talk about viruses and hackers, we couldn't really blame them for being scared. Nonetheless, we quickly found ways around their obstacles, and we were content -- until they ramped up the filter.

"E-rate" legislation has forced public schools receiving federal funds to shield minors from "objectionable material," although no one really knows what that means. Because the idea of objectionable content is so ill-defined and so variable, no one on the school or district level wants to take responsibility for what is and is not blocked. This problem is not confined to TUSD; school districts across the country do the same thing to shield themselves from the hassle and responsibility: They hire outside firms.

Our system is called InterGate, and it is a big black box sitting on a rack in the school district's communications office. Before any request for information can go onto the general Internet, it goes through InterGate. While inside InterGate, our Web browsing requests are individually logged by user name and computer address so that the school can keep track of every site each student visits. Next, the request is sent to a proxy server called Squid. A proxy server acts as a buffer between the Internet and a private network like our school's. Squid requests Web sites and serves them up to users inside a network. It's useful because its caching features make frequently visited Web sites load more quickly for local users in the school. Our version of Squid, however, is "enhanced" with a block list of objectionable sites. This list is distributed by the company that sells InterGate, and is updated automatically every night from a subscription service.

The block list is what we all hate. It is the bane of every student and teacher at Foothill High School. We curse it, we shout at it, we bang on our keyboards, but there is really nothing we can do about it. Whenever we click a site that is on the block list, a funny face appears on our screen along with a message informing us that the site we requested has been blocked because it contains objectionable material. There are those words again, "objectionable material." They're used to make parents feel safe, to make lawmakers feel secure, to make society feel good. But they have no real meaning.

Try making a list of a hundred randomly selected Web sites and see how many are blocked by filtering systems like Squid. The anti-censorship organization Peacefire does it all the time, and the results are predictable. Huge swaths of the Internet containing unobjectionable content are blocked because one page on that domain or host may have at one time contained one objectionable word or picture. At the same time, thousands of porn sites and hate sites and terrorism sites are left accessible.

This is inevitable; it is only a question of numbers. The idea that a handful of employees at InterGate have been able to read through millions upon millions of Web sites and determine what is "objectionable" is laughable. Content-filtering companies that claim all sites are reviewed by human beings are lying outright: It is simply impossible to review that many sites by hand, let alone keep the list up-to-date as sites change.

Without the thousands of human beings and millions of dollars required to filter even a substantial chunk of the Internet, filtering companies rely on spider programs. Spiders crawl the Web, searching pages for keywords like "sex" and "revolution." These programs are terribly inaccurate. I have found sites such as Stop Prisoner Rape blocked, in addition to sites promoting atheism and, of course, free-speech sites like Peacefire.

Even worse than these spider programs are the sites that are blocked when politics come into play. Filtering companies are more conservative than other organizations and often cater to right-wing groups. Not surprisingly, these companies will, consciously or not, block more liberal speech on the Internet than conservative speech. Thus Planned Parenthood is blocked, while the Christian Coalition is not. Some sites calling for the destruction of gays are allowed, while others that promote gay rights, like GLAAD, are disallowed. These are just a few examples of a huge trend toward repressing speech that is taking place in our schools.

The Constitution does not give minors the right to full constitutional and legal protection. However, children under 18 still have the same civil liberties as everyone else, liberties that no one -- not even the government -- should take away.

On May 30, I took a stand. I sent an e-mail to every single teacher and administrator in the TUSD, outlining a way to bypass the filtering system. Basically, I set up a second proxy system to direct Web requests. Students and teachers could send Web requests through my proxy server instead of the regular one, thus eluding the InterGate filters and gaining access to an uncensored Internet. I pointed out my reasons for these actions, quoting Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas: "Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us."

I stated that in my position as a computer troubleshooter for the school I had received many complaints from teachers about the overbroad restrictions of the filter. I had been asked many times by individual teachers and students to provide a way to bypass the system. Stating that the most effective guard against the visiting of "inappropriate" Web sites is teacher supervision in the classroom, I revealed my method of bypassing the censorware software. I solicited feedback from teachers, promising that all communications would remain confidential. I asked for opinions both for and against my view, as I wished to encourage a dialogue in the school and community. Responses were immediate.

"I think your actions are deplorable," wrote one teacher. "What service does this serve!!" Others worried about district backlash, telling me to "be careful" and wishing me the best on graduation. Most of the e-mails were supportive. "I hope you always have the courage and strength of character to stand up for what you believe to be important," wrote one elementary school teacher. "It's important to be a thinking person, rather than a go-along sheep." Another teacher wrote that she appreciated the bypass because "there are so many cool sites about art and literature that my students cannot get to when we research. I hope this works for the best."

Another of my teachers wrote: "It is very true that censorship is alive and well in society ... here in the micro-community of [Foothill High School] and in the macro-community of the US government. I have many opinions on this subject, especially where there are agendas out there that allow some groups to say whatever they want while preventing a response from another group that may have a different or opposing view." However, added other teachers, school staff are discouraged from speaking up about this problem because they are afraid of being labeled porn advocates or being reprimanded by school and district administrators. They supported me, but quietly.

I was pleasantly surprised to receive two letters from members of the school board pledging to look into the issue of censorship. Sadly, other members of the district were less open-minded about what I had done.

I received a summons at school the next day. I went to the principal's office, where my father was already waiting. The school district assumed I had somehow "hacked" into its system, that I may have compromised its security and that I had invaded its network. Afraid that students and teachers would be able to get around the filter, it pulled the plug on the InterGate server, taking down the entire district's Internet access. I explained that I had done nothing to the computers, that I had used no school systems for my letter and that the district's network was perfectly safe. The distict officials threatened me with suspension and prosecution, promised to bill me for their time and insinuated that I might not be able to attend graduation. I told them that I had broken no school rules and they had no case.

School staff berated me with questions as I walked through the halls that day: Why did I do it? What was I thinking? Did I want to graduate? Did I expect that I would go unpunished for my blatant mocking of school authority? Did I really think they would stand around while something as awful as what I had done took place? "Stop with the censorship bullshit," they said. "Didn't you really do this just to draw attention to yourself?"

At the same time, students patted me on the back and gave me high-fives. I didn't want to discuss it with any of them. I had made my case, my e-mail spoke for itself and I was ready for the consequences. But punishment never came.

Sure, they blocked my bypass site, they removed my administrator account on the school computer system and they banned me permanently from school computers. This was an issue of trust, and the school didn't trust me on its system anymore. I understand this, even if I don't agree with it. However, they were not able to find anything with which to charge me -- no ground for suspension, no civil or criminal charges.

I may be one of the first high school students to stand up against the Child Internet Protection Act, or the Child Online Protection Act, or the Communication Decency Act, or whatever it is being called today, but I am in no way the last. It is only the beginning of a fight that we will win, if not in the courts, if not in Congress, then on the technical battleground that is the network: We know the computers, and, in the words of Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, "on the Internet, the code is the law."

This fall I head to Brandeis University, an innovative institution that is offering me a chance to minor in a new program, Internet Studies. I hope that this censorship battle ends long before I leave college, but, expecting that it will not, I plan to study law so that one day I can defend the rights of others in court. Meanwhile, I support organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Peacefire, and I pray for a day when we are all free to have our own opinions without fear of persecution, and that we as a society are better for it. America is one of the most free places on earth, and I intend to help keep it that way.

By Daniel Silverman

Daniel Silverman is a high school senior who lives in Santa Ana, Calif.

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