Oct 12 2006

Creating a Worry-Free Web

Concerns over legal liability, network security, student productivity and bandwidth have prompted schools to filter Web content.

The sound of students complaining about web filters has become something of a feather in Mike Annab’s cap. “I actually get kids telling me, ‘Hey, you don’t let us do anything. You’ve locked it down so tight!’” says Annab, director of technology at Valley Christian School District in San Jose, Calif. “I think that’s good.”

As the numbers of Web sites and online networking tools, such as instant messaging and peer-to-peer file sharing, grow exponentially, schools nationwide have concluded that they can’t leave their students and faculties exposed to the wilds of the Internet. Concerns over legal liability, network security, student productivity and bandwidth have prompted even the most liberal schools to seek protection. And with the Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2000 and the Supreme Court’s decision last summer to uphold the law and require libraries to filter Web content or risk losing federal funds, the question is no longer whether to filter Web content, it’s how stringent filters must be to meet schools’ goals.

Deciding what content to block is just the first of many issues that need to be addressed. Other issues include: Will schools keep Web-use logs? If so, what will they do with them? Who will have access to them? Should all students and faculty have the same access rights? Should Web access be limited to certain hours, lengths of time or bandwidth limits? And what are the consequences if Web policies are violated?

“It’s much less expensive to establish an ePolicy program than it is to go to court and settle a lawsuit to the tune of $6 million or $7 million—or to get a virus or worm that destroys your hard drive,” says Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute in Columbus, Ohio.

Taking Responsibility

Just imagine a teacher projecting the Internet to her classroom, inadvertently clicking a link and winding up with pop-up ads for inappropriate sites that multiply faster than he or she can close them. It’s a scenario that Annab wasn’t about to let happen at Valley Christian Schools.

The schools had Internet access for four years before using Web filters. However, since the number of computers was limited and they were all under faculty supervision, there were few problems. As

Valley Christian’s network grew, Annab knew it was time to protect both students and faculty from offensive Web content.

Before buying a Web filter, Annab had to tread a thin line. Some parents wanted filters, but others were opposed to limiting access. Annab liked the flexibility offered by SurfControl’s Web Filter, since it let him add or subtract to the school’s list of blocked sites. It even enabled him to give limited access to groups that need to visit sites for specific school activities.

Annab says he can count on one hand the number of times a teacher has complained about being blocked from a legitimate site. For those few occurrences, he was able to easily review the sites and allow access if he decided the sites were appropriate. In most cases, the filters require little, if any, intervention on his part.

Valley Christian Schools ban peer-to-peer file sharing, which helps preserve network bandwidth. It has also shielded the school and its students from the recording industry’s recent spate of file-sharing lawsuits. Annab also blocks instant messaging, which he believes hinders student productivity. Multimedia controls automatically log off users after they reach a certain byte threshold.

Annab says Web Filter has a robust reporting feature, which enables him to get individual or macro views by groups, departments, users, bandwidth, time or sites visited. In addition, he can share the reports with teachers so they can determine how productive their classes are.

Annab even gets real-time e-mail alerts when users go to inappropriate sites. So, for instance, if a student checks his e-mail during class, which is against school policy, Annab can call and warn the teacher that the student might not be engaged in the classroom’s activity.

A big problem for schools is that students inevitably try to break the rules. Since most of them have grown up with computers, many are savvy enough to get around Web filters, warns Bill Gassman, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner. “It’s a game,” he says.

So far, none of the students at Valley Christian have managed to outsmart the filters, Annab reports. Vigilance is critical, he adds. “There are some really disturbing images out on the Internet,” he warns. “I would always err on the side of being too conservative as opposed to being too liberal.”

Most schools block what Web filtering vendor Websense refers to as the “sinful six”: adult material, gambling, illegal/questionable content, racism/hate sites, tasteless material and violence. Beyond that, schools can choose what types of content they want to block.

If schools don’t want to block some sites completely, they can create a screen that warns users that a particular site doesn’t appear to be appropriate, but, if it is, they can proceed. That reminds both the faculty and the students that they are being monitored. Alternatively, schools may let users access certain sites for only 30 minutes or only after school hours.

Annab’s final advice for school administrators investigating Web filtering tools is to choose fully customizable solutions that can change as needs evolve.

Product Spotlight

Two well-known Web filtering products are SurfControl’s Web Filter and Websense’s Enterprise v5. Each contains databases of about five million URLs that are updated daily. SurfControl and Websense break those sites down into a variety of categories, including advocacy groups, drugs, financial services, dating, travel and weapons.

Both companies’ databases are more than 95 percent accurate, according to Bill Gassman, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner. Each offers tools to filter out Internet radio, television, telephony, peer-to-peer file sharing, personal network storage and backup, streaming media, malicious sites and spyware.

SurfControl has a team of employees who regularly surf the Web looking for sites to add to the database. It also has an artificial intelligence tool that uses neural network technology to search for new sites that haven’t yet been added to the database. Websense also has analysts who review Web sites, as well as a tool that automatically sends unrecognized sites visited by users to Websense for review.

Both vendors’ products include tools that let organizations allot specified amounts of bandwidth to certain sites or tools. So, for instance, a teacher can show his or her class a streaming media site, but, if the teacher forgets to log off and the bandwidth exceeds a predetermined limit, it will automatically log off.

Websense and SurfControl offer over 50 prebuilt reports. Both contain tools to create customizable reports. For example, administrators can see the top 10 categories or sites visited, the top 10 users in terms of time or bandwidth, or sites visited by specific users. They also have real-time traffic monitors so administrators can troubleshoot problems as they occur. There are a number of administrative features built into the products so, for instance, administrators can schedule database content updates to occur automatically.

Mistaken Identity?

Content filtering software is a good way to control what students should and should not see but, occasionally, innocent Web sites get caught in the crossfire:

Filters at schools and libraries set at the least restrictive level incorrectly block an average of just 1.4% of health sites. When set at the most restrictive level, filters block 24% of health sites. Sites on sexual health issues, such as condoms and safe sex, are blocked 9% of the time with filters at the least restrictive level and as much as 50% with filters at the most restrictive level.

Source: The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2002