What should you control?

5th January 2001 at 00:00
Pornography is only the tip of a rather large iceberg when it comes to controlling and censoring use of the Internet, says Ray Stoneham.

It is commonly thought that the main problem in Further Education (FE) colleges from unrestricted Internet access by students is pornography. In fact, accessing pornography, which is easily identified, and is clearly inappropriate, is part of a much bigger problemI namely the use of the Net as a source of entertainment rather than for education. Limited bandwidth connections and limited access to resources by students, combined with limitless distractions for the Net-enabled student, can result in an ineffective educational environment, unless steps are taken to prevent this.

Colleges have always censored the material that is available in libraries, learning centres and classrooms. It is unlikely that many have provided copies of Playboy or pirated computer software, or given free use of telephones, games consoles or CD players to their students. Why should this be any different now that these are available over the Net? What has changed is that it is now a case of censorship by commission, rather than censorship by omission.

Analysis of the Internet access in a large FE college with a strict Internet access policy shows that there are many categories of sites where censorship needs to be considered. There can also be problems from sites offering graphic images of violence, earn-as-you-surf, usenet groups, sample essays for typical assignment questions, bulletin boards, horoscopes and sites that promote the views of extreme political groups. As the Internet grows in size and complexity, so does the list of potential problem sites. It is hard to give educational grounds for a college to provide unlimited access to the facilities the Internet provides. Yes, it's great for students to "talk" using email and chat lines, but not all day, in lessons and to the detriment of other students who wish to use the computers.

Universities have high bandwidth facilities, good access by students to PCs and a culture of freedom of expression and information. FE Colleges do not have the resources of universities, and they also have responsibility for many youngsters under the age of 18. That is why censorship is introduced in many colleges using Internet monitoring and control software like NetNanny, SurfControl, Cyberpatrol, N2H2 and igear. These either provide lists of banned sites, which are updated regularly, or they block all sites other than those in an approved list. Most allow you to maintain local lists of banned sites, and some offer blocking of specific file extension downloads (eg MP3). Control can usually be enforced at user name or machine name level, and groups of users or groups of PCs can have different levels of control in place.

Blocking words within URLs or pages can be effective and some Internet access control software offers this facility. Any sites containing the letters XXXX, PlayStation, crackz or warez are unlikely to be welcomed by staff wishing to enforce strict Internet access policies. It can, however, be easy unintentionally to ban references to Arsenal and Scunthorp, much to the amusement of students. Careful positioning of a few mirrors or CCTV cameras has also been shown to be an effective deterrent, as are warnings about random remote viewing of monitor screens over the network (eg using ZenWorks, NetSchool, VNC).

Any censorship controls must be responsive to the educational requirements of the students, who may need access to specialist sites which are specific to their courses in fields as diverse as nursery nursing and sport science. Sites must therefore be unblocked when necessary, and special arrangements made for any higher education students in FE colleges.

Even if all PC monitors are placed so that they are easily visible, lecturers and Learning Resource Centre staff cannot be expected to constantly watch what is being done. It is amazing the number of students that have a sudden urge to press altctrldel when they see a member of staff approaching. The lengths some students will go to in order to bypass the system by utilising anonymous surfing websites (eg anonymyzer.com), or capturing and using other user's logins, shows that the task for network managers is not easy.

For legal reasons, it is important that students are aware that monitoring is taking place and that the purpose of the monitoring is made clear. A system whereby a user must click to confirm that they have read and agreed to follow the college's IT Code of Conduct ensures that the excuse of ignorance of the Code cannot be justified. Staff who monitor Internet access must have clear guidance on how to perform the task and it is essential that they are themselves monitored. Proactive use of monitoring and control software to enforce a strict Internet access policy, although time consuming in itself, is the only effective solution if students in colleges are to have access to the educational benefits that the Net can provide.

Ray Stoneham is information services manager at Peterborough Regional College.

Top 10 problem categories

* Anonymous surfing (see main text)

* Chat lines

* Web-based email

* MP3 downloads (eg Napster)

* Online games and gambling

* Text-messaging to mobile phones

* Hacking information

* Pirate software (eg Warez)

* Free Web hosting (eg Geocities)

* Virtually unlimited data storage (eg xdrive)

10 steps to control access

* Have a clear IT Code of Conduct, linked to the college disciplinary procedure

* Publicise the IT Code of Conduct at login to the network

* Ensure students actively agree to abide by the IT Code of Conduct before they use a college computer (see text)

* Ensure a properly configured firewall is in place so the college is in control of what Internet traffic enters or leaves your system

* Install appropriate Internet access monitoring and control software on the college proxy server(s)

* Configure the access software appropriately

* Monitor Internet access logs regularly

* Keep lists of blocked sites and banned words up to date

* Ensure students know that the policy will be enforced

* Use the same system to monitor and control staff use of the Internet

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