Why is that site blocked?
CASTLE ROCK - Regularly, Douglas County students tweet the District, wondering why their favorite website or app is now blocked by the District’s digital firewall. During this week’s 5 Questions in 5 Days we will explore why certain websites and applications are blocked by the District and what students can do if they feel that they shouldn’t be.
Q: Why does the District block certain apps or sites on its network?
A: Safety is the primary consideration. Federal law, specifically the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), requires that the school district provide safe Internet access to students (especially those who are 13 or younger) while they are at school. This means that the District must work to keep students from accessing violent or sexually-explicit content, as well as safeguarding their privacy and other dangers online, including predators.
“It covers all sorts of things. Pretty much anything parents wouldn’t want from a non-educational purpose, basically,” explained DCSD Chief Technology Officer Gautam Sethi.
In addition to living up to its first priority of keeping students safe, complying with COPPA allows the District to apply for federal funding for tech-related things, like high speed Internet Access.
Q: How is the District able to block sites?
A: In order to meet its obligation to keep students safe, DCSD has a Internet filter that vets websites and apps.
“We provide Internet service to more than 65,000 students and almost 5,000 teachers throughout the course of the day. Anytime during the day, we may have up to 50,000 devices connected to the network. All of that traffic goes to a couple of filter servers which are looking at what you are asking for, and then they make a decision pretty quickly on whether to display a page -- like milliseconds -- because we don’t want to slow down access. If the system doesn’t allows you to see the page, you get a page saying ‘sorry you can’t go there.’ If it determines you can see the page, the content is loaded.”
Q: How are decisions made on what apps/sites are blocked?
A: While it isn’t easy, along the line someone has to make the decision about where to draw the line -- and the decision must fit all of our students.
“What may be okay and appropriate for a fourteen year old, may not be okay for a six year old. It’s a constant process of fine tuning,” Sethi said. “There are published web site block lists which we subscribe to. These serve as our baseline for Internet filtering.”
Beyond that the process of fine tuning is looking at many of the social media and other sites which can host both acceptable and unacceptable content.
“There is no easy option to manage websites which host such content but to block them. Sometimes we may end up erring on the side of caution, as we end up looking at the lowest common denominator, i.e. the lens of elementary school parent.
Q: Why are harmless apps like Soundcloud and Instagram blocked?
A: The primary purpose of the District’s Internet system must be to support educational efforts within the building.
“In most of these socially sourced content websites, there is no ownership or guarantee of the hosted content will be completely clean,” Sethi explained. “We can’t parse out each site hosted on Instagram, unfortunately it's all or none.”
Even if the app or website are clean, they might be blocked because they take up too much bandwidth. Music streaming, for instance, eats up a lot of bandwidth -- which can slow down the Internet for other users, making their websites and apps needed for class unresponsive.
Verizon’s Commercial, “A Better Network As Explained By A Door,” is a good metaphor for how bandwidth works. The District has created a system with a large enough “door” to meet the ordinary needs of students and staff in the building. Certain apps can block access sites, so the District decides whether or not they are truly serving the mission of educating students and restricts those that it deems are not-- in order to ensure that the doorway remains open, so that regular student and staff traffic can pass through daily.
If you think that we have unlimited Internet bandwidth, let’s flashback to 2013. Apple released iOS 7. It was the first major operating system released by Apple that had the ability to be downloaded straight to your phone over the WiFi instead of having to plug your phone into a computer and upgrade your software. While it seemed like a great idea, it turned out to be trouble for the bandwidth at our school district and others. By noon that day, the ENTIRE district internet had crashed, many students phones we’re in the middle of the upgrade therefore making them useless, no teacher or student could connect to the Internet or use the ever so famous Chromebooks and it became an issue trying to get the internet back online. It was quite a frustrating situation -- all caused by bandwidth being consumed for non-educational purposes.
Editors Note: Every day this week, we will add new Q and A's. Over the course of the week we will discuss the challenges of managing DCSD's Internet access and what students can do if they feel a website or app should be unblocked.
Story written by DCSD Student Reporter Brad Cooley, a junior at Douglas County High School.