schools need better web site-filtering
march 19, 2006
the founders of the company n2h2 probably
would not have named their internet-filtering software
after their family dog, bess, if they had known that
students across the u.s. would come to hate the name
and the friendly logo portraying their pet.
bess is a popular brand of censorware,
the name given to filtering software used by more than
40 percent of u.s. public schools and libraries. its
original maker, n2h2, was bought by the secure computing
corp. in october 2003.
bess is installed on a server connected
to all of the computers in the stayton school district.
when a user tells a web browser to display a web site,
bess checks the requested site against a list of sites
that aren't allowed.
if the site isn't on the list, it can
be viewed. if it is, the user is taken to a block page
with the bess logo that states which offending categories
the requested site falls into. some of the more than
30 categories include pornography, profanity, visual
search engine, games and recreation/entertainment.
the version of bess used by my school
has many flaws, the most important of which is the large
number of false positives, or sites that are blocked
when they shouldn't be.
some sites are blocked for strange or
false reasons, leaving students scratching their heads
as to why something on the massachusetts institute of
technology web site is blocked for "jokes." harmless
translation sites also have been blocked, as well as
anti-censorware sites that criticize bess.
although it may seem as if bess is too
strict in its blocking, the software also lets a large
amount of inappropriate content through. the essential
weakness of the software is that it relies on a blacklist
of "inappropriate" sites and is unable to determine
by itself if a web site is allowable or not.
widely publicized gaps in the blacklist
have been plugged, but bess still is vulnerable to new
sites that haven't been added to the blacklist yet or
sites that secure computing isn't aware of.
bess also confuses students by failing
to give the real reason for which some sites are blocked.
google's new video search feature, for example, is blocked
because it's a "visual search engine," implying that
it could return image results from blocked sites.
google video, however, is a database of
videos stored and filtered by google. the site clearly
states that the videos have no pornographic or otherwise
inappropriate content. bess really blocks google video
because videos are bandwidth hogs, slowing down all
other internet traffic on the same connection.
the best way to fix the mess that is the
bess censorware is to completely replace it. start by
giving each student a personal logon and password. then
use new software that would start out with a basic list
of allowed sites such as google, online encyclopedia
wikipedia and educational resources such as oslis, the
oregon school library information system. it also would
have a blacklist of proven bad sites.
if a student were to try to access a site
unknown to the software, a screen would be produced
that would inform the student that the visit would be
recorded and the site would be reviewed by the school
district's network administrator.
the student could then continue to the
site as if there was no filtering software. if the site
was discovered to be inappropriate by the district,
it would be permanently blocked. if it was determined
to be an appropriate, relevant or useful site, then
it would be allowed permanently. lists of good and bad
sites could be built up quickly, and students who abused
the system could be punished.
if school districts finally implement
a better filtering solution, students will be able to
use online resources more effectively.
matthew wolpa, 16, is a junior at stayton
high school. contact him through education reporter
sarah evans at sevans @statesmanjournal.com
or (503) 399-6856.