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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles: Use New Technology to Reinforce Instruction
Dealing with Filters and Firewalls: Protection or Obstruction?
Peggy Maslow

Ever wonder why you can't get to some places online while at school? If you or your students have had problems reaching a site, you are not alone. You may have come up against a firewall or filter, software that is designed to block access to certain web sites by using key words. For example, if the word "breast" is blocked, then a student cannot reach any site with information about breast cancer.

Occasionally I come across articles about firewalls or filters in computer servers. In this example, the Chinese have filtered out the search engine "Google," presumably because this might lead to access to sites deemed unacceptable by to the Chinese government.

SHANGHAI, Sept. 3 -China has blocked access to the popular Internet search engine Google as the government tightens media controls before a shift in leadership expected in November. There was no official announcement of the blockage, but Internet users said they could not reach Google through Chinese Internet servers for the last two days.. The government often seeks to restrict access to sites that carry material critical of the government, particularly around sensitive dates on the political calendar. 

It appears from this article that the words censorship and firewall can mean the same thing. However, firewalls were first used in schools as protection from pornography, as in the example above. Unfortunately the protection is quite inadequate. Often, pornography can still be accessed on the Internet because site names can be innocuous and misleading.

Inadequate as firewalls are, they are still used in schools. Parents think their children are protected when they are not. This is why in a recent court case, libraries were given the right not to use firewalls since the perception of protection from pornography was false.

In my public high school in New York City, the firewall stops students from using any material that deals with sports or the word sex and words for body parts that are related sex. So legitimate research on Jackie Robinson, a sports icon, would be blocked. One of my journalism students was learning about genital mutilation of girls in several countries so she could write a feature article for the class. She could gather almost no information during the class period and had to go to friend's houses and the public library to access the needed material. 

If your school district has filters, see if sites or links you recommend are blocked before sending your students to do research or on-line assignments. If they are blocked, you can remove the site or instruct students that they can only use the link at home. Most school districts have procedures to unblock sites. You would have to find out by asking the appropriate personal how to unblock the site. 

In New York City public schools, the solution is to type a letter on school stationary listing the site or sites you want unblocked. Ask your principal to sign the letter, giving his permission to have the site unblocked. The letter then has to be faxed to: 

Joe Eaione 
718 935 5780. 

Usually within 24 hours the site is unblocked.

In my opinion, filters are more trouble than they are worth. 


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