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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 10|No 6|March|2001

An Editorial

Guilty Until Proven Innocent
E-Mail Blocking Comes to Schools

Is it ever acceptable for network managers working for state governments or schools to filter large blocks of e-mail addresses without giving due process, without notifying the people blocked, without evidence of wrong doing and without careful targetting?



Do the ends justify the means?

Photo by Gretchen Offutt

Related New York Times story
March 19, 2001

Internet Filters Used to Shield Minors Censor Speech, Critics Say

A state department of education official recently kept two monthly issues of From Now On (and a bunch of other e-mail) from reaching several dozen subscribers because there had been an unrelated incident of sexual spamming associated with some other Earthlink address.

From Now On is sent with the root address, fromnowon@earthlnk.net.

Unable to identify the real offender but wishing to protect students and teachers from pornography, the official blocked a large group of Earthlink e-mail addresses.

Guilt by association?

From Now On became the victim of arbitrary and clumsy filtering - a form of modern censorship and interference that has serious implications for citizens who count on e-mail as a source of information and expect an uninterrupted daily flow.

Ironically, it is more serious when a government censors its citizens' mail (in either direction) than when a business does so. The speech issues loom larger. It is one thing to practice careful, hand-crafted filtering - the blocking of offensive materials. Quite another matter to cast a net widely to block the communications of many innocent people.

This practice seems to be growing in the background with little public discussion, awareness or debate as some network supervisors take upon themselves the moral guardianship of one group (such as children), often with little regard for the rights of other groups and individuals. Fueled by a zealot's passion combined with a sense of moral indignation (sometimes encouraged or empowered by state or federal legislators) the supervisor targets groups of addresses that may or may not be related in some way to the offender's address.

E-Mailing Filtering Blocks the Stock Market Game!
Soon after publishing this article, the coordinator of the Stock Market Game wrote me the message below, outlining recent frustrations trying to reach teachers whose e-mail was being blocked by programs preventing forwarding of various kinds . . .

From: "Armstrong, Jill" <JArmstrong@denverpost.com>
To: "'Jamie McKenzie'" <mckenzie@fno.org>
Subject: RE: March FNO - Virtual Schooling
Date: Mon, 19 Mar 2001 13:39:25 -0700

I read with interest your editorial regarding the blocking of e-mail. I coordinate the Stock Market Game for The Denver Post here in Colorado. It is a national program that is sponsored by the Securities Industries Foundation for Economic Education. I provide the curriculum, teacher training, phone support and personal touch for Colorado teachers, but the website on which the program runs is a national one. As such, it allows me a broadcast e-mail facility so that I can send information to all the teachers who have registered for and are participating in the program. Since I have over 150 teachers (and growing) enrolled in the online game, it would be impossible for me to communicate with them individually. However, I am finding more and more districts that block the e-mails that I am trying to send because they are being sent as a broadcast e-mail. I have also had individual e-mails with requested teacher information blocked. This is an educational program that the teachers praise highly on the evaluations. Yet, it is also judged guilty by association because we are sending e-mails from the very data base that makes this such a strong educational program.

Jill Armstrong
Stock Market Game Coordinator
Denver Newspaper Agency
1560 Broadway
Denver, CO 80202
303.820.1590 or 800.336.7678, ext. 1590

http://www.dpnie.com

Freedom of the press?

This crude and indiscriminate blocking of e-mail is an apparent violation of the sender's rights - in this case the freedom of the press - and a violation of the recipients' freedom of access to information. When a government agency blocks the mail of its citizens without consultation, with notification, without cause and without due process, it is a serious violation.

The state official was quick to claim defense of students from pornography as a basis for the arbitrary censorship of a publication as well as some business e-mail I had sent to another state official. How many others were blocked? Did they even know? Does the end justify the means?

This kind of defense is weak. Imagine some back office telephone employee cutting off phone calls from one whole neighborhood of town because one resident makes a crank call! If your friend, mother or business partner had the ill fortune to live in the wrong neighborhood, they would call you without success. The phone would seem to ring but not in your house.

They would not be notified. They would be throttled without due process just as FNO was choked off without warning. It might take months to discover they were failing to get through.

Imagine an official in the post office deciding to throw away all of your mail from a certain town or a certain street because someone living in that town or on that street had mailed someone offensive materials.

Just as we would not stand for this kind of interference with our phone system or our mail system, we should create legislation in each state protecting our e-mail from the clumsy and arbitrary filtering of those system managers who slip into this practice of blocking chunks of addresses without care, precision or notification.

When Thomas Jefferson once wrote that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance." I doubt that he had in mind the censorship of e-mail.

Back to March Cover

Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.
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