December 15, 2017

Internet Filters Preventing Student Research?

CTS and its wi-fi mainframe. Photo by Owen Haworth.

By Matt Fong ’20
Contributor

For years, Gordon College has used web filters on its computer network to ban particular websites from being accessed by students and faculty. Some people praise the system for preventing the access to sites that could potentially get the school into trouble. However, while the network system filters slow down students, they cannot stop them from accessing forbidden websites.

Web filters are, in theory, to prevent people from accessing websites that tend to be malware domains, pornographic material, or utilize illegal activities. More often than not, though, web filters are used in work spaces and school environments in order to increase productivity of their workers by forbidding social media sites or blocking known malware domains.

The problem with web filters is that the people who want to view blocked material have many ways of circumventing web filters with third party technology. Proxies or virtual private networks (VPNs), such as Tor, UltraSurf, and AVG, can bypass the filter while still connecting with the same network. Other tricks exist beyond third party methods; a smartphone, for example, can bypass the web filter using cellular data, which is not dependent on Gordon’s network. Since the majority of students have smartphones, cellular connection is something the school has little to no control over. Additionally, all computers have a proxy system, where users can specify IP addresses for proxies and circumvent the filters the “old-fashioned” way. Many VPNs or similar programs can be obtained through the Chrome, Firefox, or Safari in-browser app stores— all accessible on Gordon’s Internet.

Web filters do little but delay the people who want to do more questionable things on Gordon’s internet and only serve to  punish the people who obey the rules. Last year, students in the communication arts core class, “Media and Society” were analyzing advertisements in newspapers and their respective websites and discovered that Vogue was blocked on Gordon Internet. But Vogue was for assigned reading. The block on Vogue has since been lifted, but it begs the question, “When do website blocks impede on productivity?”

On the Open Gordon Facebook page, John Nadeau shared his experience researching a paper on the Battle of Thermopylae. One of his sources, the Racial Nationalist Library, was blocked under the grounds of “discrimination” when the website was intended for the research in class. Unbeknownst to Nadeau, the site praised the writings of white nationalism throughout history; Nadeau’s confusion stemmed from the vague reason each site is banned. Many have found it difficult to trust the filter categories, as sites that happen to sell lingerie are also banned (and the filter does not describe why in detail). Students in social work, the Great Conversation, and similar classes have had this issue more prominently when researching papers on sensitive topics like racism and child abuse.

The host of the website filter, Fortiguard, has no comprehensive lists of blocked websites (The list is quietly updated and can be found at fortiguard.com/webfilter/categories). While some sites are rightfully blocked, others are seemingly banned with little description or justification; terms like “abuse” and “abortion” are enough to merit a ban according to the category explanation. Fortiguard does not provide a way to change the list, and it is unknown whether it can be changed by the school or if the report system is uses has any tangible effect. Fortiguard does not prevent tools like proxies, VPNs, or other methods done by users; the website filters are easy to circumvent by those informed and armed with an internet proxy while powerless to stop them.

Gordon can only benefit from easing the network restrictions. Web filters only punish those without the knowledge of how to bypass it, and those who do are free to browse the Urban Dictionary at their leisure.

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