We Don't Need No Education

Last week I heard yet another depressing thing about the illustrious San Francisco Unified School District, a local institution that allegedly offers K-12 educational services. From now into the indefinite future, kids in every school across the SFUSD are no longer allowed to access Google's image search. That means when a kid wants to find a picture of something on the Internet -- like, say, a special insect or molecular structure she or he is writing a report about -- she or he won't be able to do so. The service has been blocked.

How did such a ridiculous thing come to pass? After all, Google is the main tool people use to search the Internet. Why shouldn't kids be allowed to use such an incredibly useful -- and, I daresay, educational -- Web site?

The SFUSD's IT department operates a filtering software program designed to block "offensive material" on school networks, which seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. But as you may know, teenagers are wily, and they have ways of laying their hands on pornography despite filters and parents and teachers and moral strictures, etc. These are horny people, hopped up on hormones in a way they never will be again, and shit happens.

In my day, we stole our parents' copies of Penthouse Variations; today kids get porn by evading their schools' filtering software. They do it, in part, by using Google's image cache. You see, when you search for pictures using the Google image search -- a subsearch page on Google that searches only pictures, not Web pages -- you can access copies of said images from Google's servers rather than the original pages where they appear. They're saved to Google's memory cache so users can access them faster. The reason you can evade a filter by accessing cached images is that filters are stupid. Filters block URLs, not content. So, www.hotnakedbabes.com is blocked but not Google's cache of www.hotnakedbabes.com. When smart ninth graders access pictures from Hot Naked Babes, it looks to the filter as if the user is downloading pictures from Google rather than the porn site. See how excellent these kids are? I give them an A.

When the SFUSD heard some enterprising porn seekers at one school were using this filter evasion technique, somebody panicked and hit the censor button. According to a statement from the SFUSD, "the I.T. department has put a district-wide filter on only the image search capability of Google once it was determined that inappropriate images were getting through the existing filter." In addition, the district says other school districts, such as Tracy's, are considering adopting the same policy.

There are two profound problems with the "no Google" policy. The first is the way it suggests it's better to eliminate a basic educational resource -- comparable to a dictionary or encyclopedia -- just because it might contain references to sex. Students who are unable to conduct Google searches are missing out on a crucial part of computer literacy, since search engines are one of the best ways to find information on the Web.

The second problem, which is strictly laughable, is that regular Google also has caching. When I recently did a Google search (not an image search) on "hot naked babes," I was able to retrieve images of naked people from the cache. So basically all the SFUSD has done is interfere with students' reasonable use of Google's image search while not fixing the alleged problem.

Christopher Pepper, a teacher at the SFUSD's Abraham Lincoln High School, says, "This decision just makes it more difficult for students to get legitimate work done. Last week my students were putting together a presentation on gun violence and wanted to include photos of some local shooting victims. They couldn't look for photos because the district put in a ban on image searches." He adds, "As a teacher, I'm interested in helping young people develop into responsible adults, and I think one of the best ways to do that is by giving them respect. Using the same filters for six-year-olds and 16-year-olds doesn't make much sense and isn't very respectful."

Moreover, one wonders (just as an aside) whether Governor Arnie's education tax cuts aren't to blame for this whole snafu in the first place: if there were more teachers per student, perhaps students' use of the Internet would be adequately supervised.

Annalee Newitz (unfiltered@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who urges teens to Google on "web proxy" to discover other ways to evade censorware. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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