School Filtering blocks an entire TLD!

All school Internet access is crippled these days. Ours here in East Lothian is crippled with Websense. I discovered today that the entire .ru TLD is blocked! Yep - any web site that end .ru is blocked! I know why - Russian domains are notorious for running malicious code and hosting dodgy stuff, but isn't it a bit over the top that we can't access www.kremlin.ru?

[UPDATE] Dan from WebSense has been in touch to point out that it is not WebSense that is blocking everything from Russia - our local configuration is doing that.  I've changed the title of this post to more accurately reflect the situation.  And no, in case your wondering, Dan didn't get all "you'll be hearing from my lawyers" on me - the only communication I've had from him is the comment below :)

This post seems to have caused lots of hassle all 'round, one way and another.  As usual, I didn't mean it to!

Comments

  1. Blacklisting an entire nation? Doesn't sound quite right to me. Bit like China blocking any UK sites - how would that be viewed?

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  2. Websense does not classify the entire TLD as malicious. This is not true. We have .ru domains that span almost every category in our database.

    My guess is that the person who is managing that Websense implementation added a custom filter to do that on their own.

    Dan Hubbard - Websense Inc.

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  3. Hi Dan. You are quite right of course. I have no problem with your company - you are providing a service to the council, and your product seems to do exactly what it says on the tin - I just happen to think that it is inappropriate to filter the Internet in secondary schools. I should have said "ELC's configuration of Websense."

    Apologies for besmirching the good name of Websense :)

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  4. We resell websense products, and we have seen this happen before. The moral of the story is definitely about getting the right set up in the first place! It will take time to tweak the system, and make sure that you are getting the filtering results you want. Hands down, Websense works best for our clients when we are proactive in helping them configure the tool.

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  5. I agree that filtering an entire nation is a bit extreme but you have to remember that the safest way to apply filters like this is to start off heavy and unblock things as they are requested.
    As you said, Russian domains are well known for hosting undesirable content and it's much easier to block the lot than it is to find all the dodgy sites and block them individually.
    As for disagreeing with web filtering in secondary schools, you should probably consider that it's there for your protection as well as the kids. I'm sure you've seen the details of this case that's going on in the US. And let's be honest; responsible and mature though I'm sure your pupils are, could you really trust them not to search for porn, games and other non-work related things during teaching time? They already try to bypass the security with proxy sites as it is.

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  6. There's the heart of the problem, "IT Guy" - I disagree with the premise that we should block heavy and unblock sites as they are requested. Such a policy crushes spontaneity. Imagine the scene - a pupil asks a question I hadn't predicted and can't answer. We go online to find an answer, and the best looking link to a solution is blocked. The opportunity has been lost. No point coming back to it in a week once the site has been unblocked, if indeed it ever is - learning doesn't work like that.
    As for my protection, I appreciate that many teachers feel reassured by the presence of filtering software, and that in most cases our filtering at East Lothian is relatively unobtrusive. And I have indeed seen the Julie Amero case - it's madness. But the bottom line is that, in case you hadn't noticed, kids aren't just trying to bypass security - they are succeeding! So the filtering just gives me a false sense of security.
    I wonder if the people who set up and maintain Websense in our authority feel that their necks would be on the block if something dodgy appeared on a screen in school? If so, I feel very sorry for them, because at the end of the day there's nothing they can do to prevent it happening. They are in a no-win situation! If they filter out everything dodgy, they end up getting folk like me moaning about censorship and lost opportunities, and even in this filtered environment there will be teachers who leave pupils unsupervised for long periods and then complain if they manage to find a way into Bebo! It is utterly unfair on them to expect that they can provide a complete solution via technology. The real solution lies in education and vigilance by teachers.
    You're right of course, I couldn't trust teenagers not to try to look at inappropriate stuff in class - that's why I would never give kids unsupervised access to machines in school, and why I would always keep an eye on what they are up to. If they understand what the consequences are, and understand that I am IT savvy enough not to be fooled by a quick window minimise, my experience has been that they don't bother trying any more. To be fair, though, I'm not in IT suites on a daily basis, so I would have to defer to the experience of full time IT/bus ed teachers on this - anyone care to comment?
    And what of the future? If we accept the precedent of using technologically implemented censorship to keep kids safe, what happens when all written communication is done electronically, and it is easy to run a program that, for example, censors kids writing as they type, to prevent them typing swear words? Would that be a good idea? If so... It feels like a slippery slope to me.

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  7. Paul (the blogger formely known as I.T. guy)28 September 2007 at 18:26

    I guess that you're right, blacklisting all with an aim to whitelist some does cause a problem with being spontaneous but it's really the only way to ensure undesirable content is made unavailable and while the Council has a policy that says content must be blocked then that's probably how it will have to be.
    I know that different user levels can be set up in Websense, maybe allowing teachers or heads of department the power to bypass the filter in certain situations would make things easier? I also know from my time at the Council (I'm not there any more) that there is only one person who has the power to do this.

    As for only providing a false sense of security, I guess again that you are right. The only thing that can be done there is for you to report any open proxy sites that you hear of to the I.T. helpdesk so that they can be blocked as well.

    As far as I understand it, the Council does have a legal obligation to filter certain content from the Internet on the schools domain. That is one of the main arguments in the defence case for Julie Amero. I don't think, however, that it would be the maintainers of Websense that would be called up if something was to get through. They most likely see a policy written down that says "block undesirable content" and that's exactly what they do. I understand from a teaching point of view that that is not the best way and some sort of compromise must be agreed.

    As for keeping an eye on what the kids are up to in the larger computer suits, maybe using VNC software is the answer? I know it's already being used in the school libraries so why not in classrooms?

    I remember the software that was in place when I was in school (only a few years and in a Midlothian school). The email system was web based and used software to stop emails containing certain words from being delivered. It's a horrible idea and it stamps all over a persons right to freedom of speech. Software like this was not being used by ELC when I was there and I really hope that has not changed. I'm not really sure if a link can be drawn between censoring what a person is allowed to say and censoring what they are allowed to view on the internet though. There's a lot of particularly nasty stuff out there, surely you wouldn't want a completely open connection that allowed anything to be viewed in your classroom? I think you would rapidly find yourself teaching more in the field of Philosophy and Moral Ed than in Maths if that were to happen, don't you?

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  8. I think we are singing from the same hymn sheet here :)

    The compromise we have here in East Lothian is that you can ask to have a site unblocked, and it is usually done pretty quickly. In the current climate, I guess that's the best I can hope for. Allowing competent staff to bypass WebSense would be eminently sensible - those that wanted the sense of security could have it, and those that wanted to work with the full Internet could also do so.

    I know folk that have tried out VNC software, and seemed enthusiastic, but I reckon it was because they were too lazy to get off their backsides and walk around the room to see what the kids were up to ;)

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  9. The problem isn't just restricted to councils. One of the mobile phone operators we have been talking with block all websites from Thailand for under 18s.

    I think software like VNC would be useful, not because I'm lazy, but because the kids can see me coming! I am very good at spotting the exact colour of the Meebo background from 30 paces though.

    My objection to sites like Bebo and Meebo is purely when pupils use them instead of working. In those cases I just threaten to block their internet access, which seems to work.

    We need a better solution than just blocking sites. It's easy for councils because they don't have to worry about it, but it's restricting educational opportunities.

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  10. The college I attended used Bess to filter its i-net. The logo depicts a dog, and we assumed it must have been a female dog, because Bess could be a real bi---.

    However, the situation wasn't impossible. During my time there I was able to search smarter, and guess in advance which sites would be blocked and which wouldn't. By the end of my time, I hardly ever saw that blocked screen. What also helped was the fact that it's a small college, with one IT guy. If the wrong site was blocked, you just clicked a link, and it was usually cleared up within a day or so.

    I can imagine how frustrating it would be to be in the middle of answering one of those "spontaneous questions" and to find yourself blocked by your filtering system. But wouldn't this be a great teaching opportunity in itself? The kids are probably being blocked as much as you are (if not a little more). What an opportunity to show them techniques to work with the system!

    Or, if web-filter aversion is so prevalent, then maybe your students could teach you a thing of two ;)

    Take care,
    Alan

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