Freedom to surf
Debate rages over censorship on Internet use it the class

by Tiffany Thiem
Northern News Services

NNSL (Nov 19/97) - To some, BESS is a good thing for high school, and for others it is not. It seems like a constant debate between teachers and parents against the students.

Alan Petten, a teacher at Sir John Franklin high school, was primarily responsible for bringing the Internet censor known as BESS to Sir John, although it had to be approved by the school board.

Previous to BESS, a teacher's only method of filtering what students see on the Net was to go from computer to computer observing what students were doing, but student found that easy to get around.

"It's not too difficult to keep track of what the teacher is doing, and to change your screen to something else when the teacher comes around," Petten said.

That was no guarantee to parents, that their children were not exposed to objectionable sites.

"As a school we have an obligation to provide a proper learning environment, and the Internet is a good useful source of information, but contains some material that would be considered inappropriate," said Petten.

"For example, as a school we wouldn't have people bringing Playboy magazine to class but you buy it in a drug store easily in Yellowknife."

BESS is made by a privately-held company based in Seattle, Wash., called N2H2 Incorporated. It provides Internet filtering and caching services to schools, libraries, business, home and government services.

BESS is a black box (a computer) that blocks sites in every computer throughout the school district. It updates its filters daily with lists on sites to block, and will allow you to block or access any site you wish.

If students feel that a certain site shouldn't be blocked, you can e-mail them.

Saving time and money

BESS does two things: the filtering and the proxy server, a system that saves Internet time by remembering the content of sites that had been previously visited.

And that helps when you pay for accessing non-local sites -- just one student can cost the school $80 in a month in Internet fees.

Sir John also blocks most entertainment sites that have nothing to do with school studies. Businesses also block these sites so that their employees don't waste time on other things besides work.

Petten recalled a story about a man who accessed pornography sites 15,000 times, and lost his job because of it.

And chats are also blocked because of bizarre cases in which people are threatened, or approached to meet.

"The best way to look at it, the way I like to look at it is, it's like using long-distance telephone calls," Petten said.

"Nobody minds if you use the telephone for school, I suppose, if you are using it for a proper reason, you know, phoning your parents. But if you're using the telephone to phone your friends, that shouldn't really happen. And if you're making a long-distance phone call, somebody has to pay for it."

Teacher Harry Golding at Sir John agrees with Petten. "It's protection for the student, and protection for the teacher, it means that students should not be able to get into Web sites that may have detrimental effects on the individual."

But not everyone agrees with that point of view.

In fact, some students are strongly opposed to it.

One Grade 11 student at Sir John said, "I went to get into a site on the aurora borealis and BESS wouldn't let me, so Mr. Petten overided it and let me look at it and there was just a bunch of pictures of a planetarium built in 1989, and the entire thing was written in Norwegian."

Breasts censored

Chris Raves, a Grade 12 student, has a similar story. "I think it censors way, way, way too much. I know this story of this girl who was looking for information on breast cancer, and they wouldn't let her in because it had the word breast in it."

Some staff members at Sir John also disagree. One teacher, who asked not to be named, compared the issue with library privileges.

"If we censor, what they have access to, then when are they going to make mature decisions for themselves? When do they learn to be responsible?"

Al McDonald, one of the vice-principals at Sir John, though supportive of the concept, has had some trouble with BESS. "I find it a little frustrating for myself, because I wasn't able to get into the national debt clock the other day, which is something I don't think should be censored," he said.

"It's a little frustrating on certain things, but all in all I guess we have to put up with the frustration for the overall good of the students."

For Anne-Mieke Cameron, Sir John's principal, BESS has a purpose in school systems -- but mainly for younger students.

"What I think is more important is that students in high school are to think for themselves, and are to make judgments for themselves that are their own."