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Through hell, high water or Web filters

Times Staff Writer

Excuse me, Congress? You know that bill you’re thinking about passing, the one that would prevent kids from accessing social networking websites like MySpace.com at schools and libraries? Kris Sosa, a junior at West Ottawa High School in Holland, Miss., has something to tell you:

“Anything that youth attaches themselves to, the public gets scared about,” he says. “And with this, just like with anything else -- underage drinking, for example -- youth is going to find a way to get what they want. It’s inevitable. Even if this law passes, even if it goes into effect, there’s going to be a way around it. It’s just a matter of time.”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 1, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 01, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
West Ottawa High School: An article Wednesday in Calendar about attempts to limit access to the MySpace website quoted a student from West Ottawa High School and said the school was in Holland, Miss. It is in Holland, Mich.

Sosa is sure that he’ll beat such a prohibition because he and many of his teenage compatriots already have. Like a growing number of schools and libraries nationwide, West Ottawa blocks students from social networking websites. But instead of glumly relinquishing access, Sosa and “a majority of the other kids at my school,” he says, use technological workarounds to access whatever they darn well feel like. When administrators block one route, kids find another.

Which suggests that the mess of politicians, teachers, parents and other adults engaged in a feisty debate over the bill recently proposed by Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), the Deleting Online Predators Act, are perhaps asking the wrong question. It’s not whether lawmakers should bar kids from accessing social networking websites but whether they can.

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“There’s no question that kids have become savvier,” says Michele Shannon, senior director of product management for San Diego-based WebSense, a maker of Web filtering software. “If anyone’s going to figure out a way through, it’s them. We try and stay a step ahead.”

In this arms race, Team Youth has an important adult ally. Bennett Haselton, a Seattle-based computer programmer who works on contract with the U.S. government to fight Internet censorship in places like China and Saudi Arabia, spends his free time doing the same thing on American turf. Through his website, Peacefire.org, Haselton provides free access to tools that Saudi Arabian citizens and American students alike use to tunnel through their respective barriers. (Authoritarian governments and school districts often employ the very same filtering software.)

“Historically, teenagers have been much closer to adults than children,” Haselton says. “It’s only in recent decades that the teenage years became classified as an extension of childhood rather than part of adulthood. Just because kids stay in school longer, it doesn’t mean that the natural age of human maturity and responsibility has gone up.”

The technology behind blocking software, and the software to circumvent it, have remained mostly the same since Haselton began this crusade about 10 years ago, when he was a freshman at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Peacefire was then, as now, a “students rights organization.” Its motto: “You’ll understand when you’re younger.” The challenge has been less inventing new technology, Haselton says, than disguising the same technology over and over so that the enemy can’t recognize it.

Filtering software generally resides on a school or library’s central server computer, a gateway to the unfiltered Internet beyond. All the connected computers direct their Internet traffic through this server so that if a giggling adolescent in a computer lab types in Playboy.com, the server intercepts that request and sends back a blank page instead of a naked woman.

Problem is, the Internet is a vast landscape of billions of sites, expanding by the millisecond. It’s obvious that a school would block Playboy, a known entity, but what of the unknown? Despite receiving daily or even hourly updates from filtering-software vendors, it’s simply impossible for software programs to censor the Web in its entirety. So Haselton and teenagers everywhere set up and abandon porthole after porthole under cover of anonymity.

Let’s say that instead of typing in Playboy.com, that same giggling adolescent typed in Birthdaycakebatter.com. Chances are that the server would grant his request because this new address isn’t on the list of blocked sites. Unbeknown to the server, however, Birthdaycakebatter.com is one of a never-ending stream of “circumventor” websites created by Haselton and others, each one located at another random, innocuous-sounding Web address (for instance, Magneticpizza.com and Seahorseolympics.com).

Now all the kid has to do is scroll down on the new page to where it says, “Enter the URL below that you want to access,” type in Playboy.com, and voila: His request is rerouted not through the central server but through an outside server willing to retrieve whatever he so desires. Freedom ... for a few hours or, if he’s lucky, a few days, until the filtering software bans the portal, called a “proxy server,” and it’s time for Haselton to think up another silly address, which he e-mails to a cast of thousands and word-of-mouth does the rest.

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There’s intrigue and subterfuge. “We have Yahoo and Hotmail and other free e-mail accounts that we use to subscribe to [Peacefire’s] mailing lists under crazy names, so we can be informed about these proxies,” says Drew Yates, a network administrator at South Fulton High School in South Fulton, Tenn. Yates also relies on teachers to identify and report renegade students.

“The right of free speech is alive and well, and that’s fine,” Yates says. “But in an educational system, Haselton’s position on free speech does not exist. It wouldn’t bother me a bit if they passed a law that banned stuff like MySpace.” (It certainly wouldn’t change much at South Fulton High, which already blocks social networking.)

The collateral damage from this arms race, says Benjamin Edelman, a Harvard doctoral student and an expert on Internet filtering, is that as filtering companies fight to hide all forbidden content and students fight to reveal it, the Web gets censored in an increasingly broad, slipshod way. Google’s image search, for instance, has long been known as an easy way to access images residing on banned websites; but if it gets blocked, “then when a kid wants a picture of Nelson Mandela, they can’t get it,” he says.

Or, rather, they can get it -- but they find themselves using forbidden techniques to access allowed material. Cameron Stolz, 17, of Griffin, Ga., recently tried to research the Bay of Pigs, was blocked and employed circumventor software to complete the class assignment. Stolz, by the way, is in favor of moderate filtering: “I’m not an anarchist kid who thinks that we should be able to do whatever we want,” he says. “We shouldn’t just be able to roam the Internet.”

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Joel Key, a Spanish and art teacher at New York’s Bronx High School for the Visual Arts, is likewise in favor of filtering but says that currently it just doesn’t work. Students on an Internet scavenger hunt for collage images found that all basketball photos were blocked, Key says, “but for some reason they can get porn, and they can get Internet television sites, such as Youtube.com. We’ve tried to get those blocked many times.” MySpace and the wildly popular social networking site Sconex.com are blocked, but kids find ways to access them anyway, Key says.

OK, so it’s clear that kids don’t take Internet censorship sitting down, and a congressional ban might well make them more belligerent. But let’s say that a social networking ban does work, on some level, for some kids. What then?

It’ll strike a blow to the ne’er-do-wells “who are crawling through the profiles that our children are creating at school while their parents are not around,” says Fitzpatrick, the congressman who wrote the bill, which is currently in the Energy and Commerce Committee and has 21 cosponsors.

No, what it will do is create a “participation gap,” says Henry Jenkins, co-director of the comparative media studies program at MIT. Kids who are wealthy enough to have a computer and an Internet connection at home will access social networking from there, while whoever must use school and library computers “will be locked out of participating in the defining experiences of this emerging generation.”

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Everyone just hold on a second, please, asks Brad Novreske, a high school freshman in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This war is based on a misunderstanding: Social networking isn’t evil, he says, “It’s just friends. Growing up, you have to have friends and social ties. Otherwise you feel alone.”

Until his school district, and Congress, come around to his way of seeing it, Novreske will continue to access social networking illicitly. But he’d rather see kids and adults MySpacing together in peace.


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