In Wayzata, Minnesota, a school spies on its students

Nathan Ringo:

I’m a student. As a student, my school is one of my favorite places to be: I enjoy learning and find almost all my teachers to be agreeable. I’m also a programmer and an advocate of free speech. In that role, my school holds a more dubious distinction: it’s the first place where my interests in computers and my rights were questioned.

Like many other school districts, #284 of Wayzata, Minnesota puts censorware between students and the Internet. This filter lets the school claim federal funding in exchange for blocking pornography. However, Wayzata chose to implement an unsavory policy of blocking not just porn, but anything and everything they feel is inappropriate in a school setting. Worse, I could not find out who makes the judgements about what should be considered inappropriate. It’s not stated in the school board policy that mandates the filter: that police say that the filter should “only block porn, hate speech, and harassment.” Our censorware, however, blocks material ranging from Twitter to comic books. Meanwhile, students are told to use Twitter as part of our Spanish classes and our school offers a course on comic books. Beyond blocking sites that are used in classes, there are also many false positives.

I started trying to get around the content filtering system in 7th grade, halfway through middle school. I used the old trick of accessing blocked sites by looking up their IPs, then using those in place of their domain names. Back then, the censoring layer was something like a regex matcher strapped onto an HTTP proxy–in other words, all the data was routed through software that simply looked for certain domain names or terms in the URL, then blocked those requests. When the school upgraded their filter to a different product, I was stuck on the censored net again for a few months. By eighth grade, I had taught myself to code in C++, an “actual programming language” more powerful than the basic web scripting languages I’d known up until that point. Although I still wasn’t able to get past the new censorship with my relatively rudimentary knowledge, I did get introduced to the software tools that could – Linux, SSL, and SOCKS5. With these, I was unaffected by all the bad Internet policy decisions made in the next two and a half years: the blocking of YouTube and Vimeo, rate-limiting on downloads, and an exponentially expanding list of addresses that are deemed to be too horrifying for students to view, such as XKCD, Wikipedia, news websites and anywhere else that, somewhere, contains a naughty word.