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Google Gone

By Annalee Newitz

LAST WEEK, I heard yet another depressing thing about the illustrious San Francisco Unified School District, a local institution that allegedly offers K-12 educational services. From now into the indefinite future, kids in every school across the district are no longer allowed to access Google's image search. That means when a kid wants to find a picture of something on the Internet--like, say, a special insect or molecular structure she's writing a report about--she won't be able to do so. The service has been blocked.

How did such a ridiculous thing come to pass? After all, Google is the main tool that people use to search the Internet. Why shouldn't kids be allowed to use such an incredibly useful--and, I dare say, educational--website?

The district's IT department operates a filtering software program designed to block "offensive _material" on school networks, which seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. But as you may know, teenagers are wily, and they have ways of laying their hands on pornography despite filters and parents and teachers and moral strictures. These are horny people, hopped up on hormones in a way they never will be again, and shit happens.

In my day, we stole our parents' copies of Penthouse Variations; today, kids get porn by evading their schools' filtering software. They do it, in part, by using Google's image cache. You see, when you search for images using the Google Image Search--a subsearch page on Google that searches only pictures, not web pages--you can access copies of said images from Google's servers rather than the original pages where they appear. These are images saved to Google's memory cache so that users can access them faster.

The reason you can evade a filter by accessing cached images is because filters are stupid. Filters block URLs, not content. So hotnakedbabes.com is blocked but not Google's cache of hotnakedbabes.com. When smart ninth graders access pictures from hotnakedbabes.com, it looks to the filter as if the user is downloading pictures from Google rather than the porn site.
See how excellent these kids are? I give them an A.

When the San Francisco Unified School District heard that some enterprising porn seekers at one school were using this filter-evasion technique, somebody panicked and hit the censor button. According to a statement from the district, "The I.T. department has put a districtwide filter on only the image-search capability of Google once it was determined that inappropriate images were getting through the existing filter." In addition, the district says other school districts, such as Tracy, are considering adopting the same policy.

There are two profound problems with the "no Google" policy. The first is the way it suggests that it's better to eliminate a basic educational resource--comparable to a dictionary or encyclopedia--just because it might contain references to sex. Kids who grow up unable to conduct Google searches are missing out on a crucial part of computer literacy, since search engines are one of the best ways to find information on the web.

The second problem, which is strictly laughable, is that regular Google also has caching. When I recently did a Google search (not a Google Image search) on "hot naked babes," I was able to retrieve images of naked people from the cache. So basically all the district has done is interfere with students' reasonable uses of Google Image search, while not fixing the alleged problem.

Christopher Pepper, a teacher at SFUSD's Abraham Lincoln High, says, "This decision just makes it more difficult for students to get legitimate work done. Last week, my students were putting together a presentation on gun violence and wanted to include photos of some local shooting victims. They couldn't look for photos because the district put in a ban on image searches." He adds, "As a teacher, I'm interested in helping young people develop into responsible adults, and I think one of the best ways to do that is by giving them respect. Using the same filters for 6-year-olds and 16-year-olds doesn't make much sense and isn't very respectful."

Moreover, one wonders (just as an aside) whether Gov. Arnie's education tax cuts aren't to blame for this whole snafu in the first place: If there were more teachers per student, perhaps students' uses of the Internet would be adequately supervised.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who urges teens to Google on "web proxy" to discover other ways to evade censorware.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the March 24-31, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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