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On the Censorship of Student Computers

by Ian Sturak



Free internet access is, increasingly, a necessitated right of the twenty-first century. United Nations precedent sourced from the U.N. Human Rights Council has established disruptions of it to be a violation of human rights, with legal protection for it deriving from extensions of the established freedoms of speech and assembly; the internet is more and more simply a reflection of normal sociality. As such, the same rights apply - often even more so. It is becoming where we speak, where we gather. Additionally, it is now the largest publicly available repository of information, and, as the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights says, “Everyone has the right to… receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” When the internet is the largest single source of our information, it becomes crucial to both provide and to protect access to it.


It was for these reasons, when giving computers to children in schools became a federal priority, there was one restriction on what children could access using those publicly sourced computers - “obscene content,” referring to pornography that children couldn’t be allowed to access under the Children’s Internet Protection Act. Besides this rather narrow spectrum of blocked content, computers were intended to give children vast access to the full spectrum of the internet. Just as a library does not discriminate what books it puts up, schools were never meant to curate the availability of resources for their students.



Thus, when computers were first rolled out in K-12 educational institutions, internet access was meant to be egalitarian. Unfortunately, the conventional system now is anything but.


It’s not hard to run into a block on a school computer. They’re incredibly common; anecdotal numbers from students suggest that high amounts of normal websites they’re using for research projects, school activities, and just general web browsing come with their page blocked.

One example is found in school clubs. Despite being officially sanctioned as a “school club,” the Dungeons and Dragons Club finds most of the websites necessary to play the game blocked. Under the guise of being “video games,” the pages for dndbeyond.com, 5e.tools, and sw5e.com are all blocked. Despite such restrictions not being required on a federal level, most school districts have gone ahead with trying to ban kids from accessing “video games” on school computers, for the simple reason that most have the potential to be pretty distracting. Whether banning kids from playing them actually focuses them more on school work is less verifiable; often it simply fosters resentment and loophole-seeking from those same kids. It’s one of many solutions instituted merely because it feels like it should work - not because it, in actuality, does have any effects. It simply spurs kids to go ahead and look up more obscure video games and focus on getting around the block, making them all the more off task.

Regardless of the efficacy of the video game block, it shouldn’t apply to any of these websites. Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop game, and more importantly is played with around five to six other people. It’s not a computer game, and it’s fundamentally impossible for someone to be distracted by their work because they’re “playing it.” The websites themselves are all simply indexing websites for the rules; dndbeyond.com is the official page for it, and provides a sort of news feed on articles related to it, 5e.tools is a comprehensive list of every rule and optional rule published for the fifth edition of the game, and sw5e.com is an overview of how to play using the game’s rules in a different setting than the default one. All of them amount to numbers sitting on a page, with the addition of informative articles on the first website. There’s no “game” somehow existent in the website alone. They are, however, essential websites for having online reference tools in the Dungeons and Dragons Club, especially since most of the books retail for around fifty dollars - being able to access the rules for free online is necessary for a lot of kids who wish to play.

In the same vein, the Model United Nations club found the page for a conference they were going to attend, KnightsMUN, blocked. The website had vital information on the event’s location, cost, registration, and necessary preparations, but was barred from student access for no clear reason. Though these examples may seem relatively tame, each adds up. Crucial parts of the online world that high school students need access to are being trapped behind prevention pages for nonsensical reasons.


Previous examples are rather benign, however, when compared to the effects of the school’s policy on domain names. The school district, apparently prioritizing an umbrella approach of banning websites, has decided to use a hammer for the job of a scalpel. Instead of individually choosing select websites to ban, it has banned every single domain name that isn’t a standard one used in the US - .com, .gov, or .org. The consequences of this are unbelievably immense; the vast majority of pages on the Internet are blocked simply because they weren’t created in the United States. When working on school projects, it is more likely than not that every single academic paper you try to access will be barred from you. Pages like this one - pressbooks.bccampus.ca/greeklatinroots2/chapter/%C2%A7101-transliteration-and-latinization/ - and this one - ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/greeklatinroots2/chapter/%C2%A7101-transliteration-and-latinization - which merely discuss how Ancient Greek transliteration and translation differ? Blocked. An interview - chomsky.info/20130528/ - by Noam Chomsky, one of the forefront scholars of the contemporary age and often called the “the father of modern linguistics” on how far-right libertarianism is a failed version of anarchism? Blocked. The World Health Organization - https://www.who.int/ - the universally recognized forefront of international healthcare information and advocacy? Blocked.

In their blunt refusal to handle blocking websites delicately, our school district has, perhaps knowingly, perhaps not, removed students’ access to the majority of academic research in the world. It’s perturbing, and the consequences of banning the majority of domain names doesn’t end there. The official government pages for Canada, the EU, and every other country on Earth besides America? Blocked.

What world do we live in where we must censor the access of children to the internet to such a degree that they cannot access a statement put out by the European Union, the United States’ clear contemporary in terms of status and development? It’s currently easier to cross the border into the actual country of Canada than it is to see their government policies on a school computer.

Editorially, I don’t believe that it’s intentional. Point Loma High School Principal Lowry said he “wasn’t aware that those were blocked” on the matter, and was surprised by the fact that students were restricted access. Nonetheless, the ban still stands, and will continue to stand for as long as the district decides that blunt measures of mass censorship are the best way to protect kids. No matter what the original intentions behind blocking all domain names not centered in the United States were, it doesn’t excuse the extreme Americentrist effects that this will have on kids. Academics from other countries can’t be cited on school reports, the policies of other countries can’t be accessed. Principal Lowry also speculated that it may be because, “‘some countries’ content is potentially more questionable than others and I don’t think…the district wants to play favorites about…letting you have access to ‘Country A’ but not ‘Country B.’” However, even if so, anything present on the pages of a foreign nation’s official website has been placed there by a sovereign nation, a very real entity with tactile influence on the reality that current students must grow up in. If our children are the inheritors of this world, what does it say that we don’t let them even read the official statements of any country but our own? Why can’t members of an up-and-coming generation see the very trade deals which may one day affect the prices of the food that they eat? Why are we so overprotective that we would even arrive at this point of utter ignorance within a public place of learning?

It’s almost certainly not intentional for the school district to force American nationalism on its student base, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a dire consequence of their actions. The technology they use has no inherent requirement for every domain name to be blocked, censoring them was a conscious decision with incredibly detrimental ramifications.


Domain names aren’t the only place where the blatancy of the school district’s actions appear overwhelmingly blunt. Any searches containing the slightest relation to sexual matters are blocked - which has the humourous effect of blocking a search for Vice President Dick Cheney - and the much more serious effect of completely halting legitimately-intentioned sexual education research on school computers. Searches for “weed,” “marijuana,” and other commonly used terms for cannabis are also blocked. It brings into question whether students do have a right to bona fide research on these subjects. The curriculum the school presents on sexual education is, arguably, extremely lacking - students who choose not to take biology until they take the A.P. option in their junior year will have received it for two weeks in sixth and eighth grade, and then go three years learning nothing else. With such a deprived curriculum, is it okay to also prevent them from doing any legitimate research on their own? The censorship surrounding cannabis presents similar questions; the most powerful way to stop drug use among students is education. Pretending that it doesn’t exist and creating a wall of censors around it won’t stop teenagers who would obtain it from accessing it, they’ll just be less informed when they do. Stopping people from being able to search up “marijuana” isn’t doing anything to help them, and it’s not doing anything to stop the problem; if anything, all it does is worsen it. Whether the school district likes it or not, the existence of cannabis is a fact of the modern world. Its legalization is a major influence in recent political elections, which some students are of the age to vote for. We let students vote on cannabis’ legalization before we trust them enough to look up its chemical composition.


The problem with school censorship often doesn’t come with its theory, but its institution. Blocking kids from accessing explicit and illegal websites on school-given computers is obviously a reasonable expectation while giving them a device with the potential to access the full spectrum of the internet. But in doing so, in ever pushing further the line of what can and can’t be accessed on school computers, we’ve taken something infinitely valuable from our students. Because it could be used to access sites that had been previously blocked, web.archive.org has become one of the most recent websites to be censored on school computers. A facet of archive.org, the largest public internet library in the world with a mission of providing “universal access to all knowledge,” it provided a backup of most websites as they have existed at most points in time. It’s invaluable for research projects, providing pages that have been taken down, are behind a paywall, or have since been edited from their original state. Now, it’s gone.

When do we question whether the extent of our actions have violated the morality with which they were originally initiated? Perhaps it’s when we censor students from accessing any websites based in other nations than our own. Perhaps it’s when we block them from seeing research papers, internet libraries, tabletop game rules. Perhaps it’s when we decide to prevent education about drugs, about sex, and about every other subject that must be handled carefully. Wherever it is, it’s a line that, with the current policies of the school district, was passed long ago. Principal Lowry’s main statement when being interviewed this November was that, “if they have questions about what their school district - because it belongs to all of us - blocks, doesn’t block, [they] have elected representatives… to make their voices heard.” Change comes from advocacy, and the current disposition of the school board requires that change.

It was Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa after the fall of apartheid rule, who said that, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Right now, education has become subservient. We have taken away the most important tool students can use so that the issues we face can, instead of being addressed, be swept under the rug. We censor so that we do not have to teach.

We can’t expect our generation to make a positive change in our world until we stop trying to imbue them with the naïveté that its problems don’t exist.


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