E-porn battle soaks up cash

27th April 2001 at 01:00
COLLEGES are fighting an unwinnable and costly battle to prevent students from accessing pornography on the Internet.

Internet pornography is so ubiquitous that it can be accessed accidentally. Constant vigilance and a streetwise IT manager are essential.

FE college managers say the drive to block Internet porn uses hard-won cash which they would rather spend on more constructive projects.

Few colleges have worked more systematically than Guildford to keep pornography at bay, although problems there are probably no more marked than elsewhere. Students will try to push the boundaries wherever they are.

This is no simple matter in an institution with almost 1,000 computers. Despite the sophistication of its software surveillance, its filters cannot trap pornography attached to an e-mail.

"They only look at websites, not e-mail sites," says Phil Garbutt, Guildford's head of IT systems. "There are also problems with bulletin boards, some used by paedophiles, which are hidden behind passwords."

Generally the safeguards of Guildford's new system, bought because previous controls were much less effective, make it hard for students to get away with accessing porn. Students can only access e-mail between 12.00pm and 2.00pm and after 5.00pm. Any attempt to access a known porn site is blocked and registered in the system.

Site proliferation is a headache. Every few days Symantec, supplier of the Guildford software, makes available for down-loading a comprehensive list of newly-discovered dubious sites. The blacklist allows the college to block undesirable areas of the Internet almost as soon as they're discovered. This sor of facility, along with monitoring the top 10, 25 or even 100 sites visited by students, allows Guildford to keep a lid on things.

But it doesn't come cheap. Faced with a software bill of almost pound;20,000 - pound;20 paid for each college computer - Guildford negotiated a site licence for a set fee. "You have to do this every year," said Mr Garbutt. "You pay for the updated list on a regular basis."

It is, he admits, a minefield. "Some of our people still give us the run around, even though with our level of expertise we manage to keep it in check."

The college is reluctant to get rid of offenders, but miscreants may have to suffer the indignity of only being allowed to access the Internet in the presence of a tutor. "We can monitor students if they are using a computer elsewhere and shut that machine down," said Mr Garbutt.

The ultimate sanction, exclusion, is rarely applied. "I've only known of one recent case, where a student in Worcester who had been persistently hitting porn sites was thrown out," said John Offord, the National Union of Students officer for FE.

"Too many colleges fail to publish a policy on the issue. It is part of the broader question of good security, and seems to be having a higher profile. We would expect student governors to keep a fairly close eye on it. A published policy would make students - and staff - aware of the things they can't do."

John Brown, director of lifelong learning at the British Educational Communications and Technology Centre, said that the UK Education and Research Networking Association has produced guidance on Internet filtering that will be released to colleges.


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