A Different Perspective on the State of K-12 Web Filtering

A History of Content Filtering in Schools                                  securlylogo_black

Pornography Filtering & URL List Race

I first began selling web filtering solutions to school IT and Network Administrators in 2004. The CIPA law had recently been passed, so schools were eagerly spending money on filtering appliances to protect their students. The industry was flooded with new companies entering the market, and popular firewalls added web filtering to their UTM lineup.

Back then, schools focused on blocking pornography when selecting a solution. Each vendor pitched that they had more porn sites in their database than other filters, that they blocked the largest number of categories, and that they had better update mechanisms, including “100% human verified” databases. The cat-and-mouse game sales pitch was working well.

Whenever schools evaluated new solutions, they would pick websites already blocked by their current filter to check against the new vendor to ensure they were not downgrading. Others would let the filter run for a month and watch for over-blocking complaints from students and staff, as that was more important. When under-blocking was a concern, schools would block all uncategorized sites, until of course over-blocking became an issue.

After getting a lid on adult sites, the next big concern for schools was gaming sites and having better reporting to identify content not blocked. Imagine as a rep discussing mainly how intelligent their web filter was in understanding how to distinguish educational gaming sites from non-educational, and the number of games in the database. It was believable until many realized that the growth rate of the internet was so exponential, that properly categorizing the entire internet was simply not possible.

Circumvention

Around 2006, anonymous proxies became a huge problem for schools. Kids were using proxies to easily circumvent any web filter. It was becoming such a desperate problem that some companies were successfully selling dedicated proxy-blocker appliances to complement the existing solution. I had more than one conversation with technology coordinators subscribing to anonymous proxy lists each morning in order to manually update the content filter URL-list as they had their morning coffee.

After many unsuccessful attempts at preventing kids from circumventing web filters, many IT Administrators had been through handfuls of content filter appliances. They realized that no content filter was able to categorize the internet, let alone stay up-to-speed on the ever-changing content and addresses.

Circumvention soon became an even larger issue when applications, VPN’s, encrypted browsers, and Layer 7 traffic caused havoc on the IT Admins attempt to keep children safe and productive online.

I remember having hundreds of conversations with school technology staff getting increasingly frustrated that all appliances were in some way letting them down. In addition to not blocking websites properly, reporting databases would lag, authentication issues occurred, and many experienced scalability and off-site filtering challenges.

Web filter companies were realizing the power of perception. Some companies would add boxes to advertise a new category, yet only have a few hundred websites in the database. Others would import over a small list of applications to block in their firewall, yet advertise they were a next-generation UTM. Reports would be advertised as accurate, only to report a corrupted database when you most needed the data. Vendors would sell you one appliance, only to tell you later you need 2 more plus a load balancer to keep up with your network size. And let’s not forget administrators needing to submit websites to be recategorized daily, to help do the job for the vendor and ensure an accurate database.

A Change in Requirements

Schools began to lose faith in web filters and vendors. Many schools today will tell me that a filter is a filter and that they simply want it to work. Schools are tired of the complexity of filtering and of being let down. I believe that we as vendors are all at fault for setting so many false expectations that the ed-tech community has become genuinely frustrated.

It is clear that web filtering is not the most exciting product to shop for, but it is necessary for staying CIPA compliant. It has become a commodity product available on UTM firewalls, appliances, cloud, hybrid-cloud, and software agents. Over the years of working with schools and observing their challenges, as well as challenges from the vendor side, I have learned:

  • Every web filter solution will in some way allow inappropriate content and can be circumvented. There are literally hundreds of millions of bad sites, and they frequently move around. Web filter companies need to always be honest about limitations of web filtering.
  • There are too many circumvention methods available, including applications, VPN’s, unmanaged devices on school networks, proxies, and miscategorization. Kids will also use personal devices or use cellular networks to access content on school devices more easily.
  • The number of sites any provider has in its database is irrelevant. The ability to block those sites that kids are actually visiting is way more important, which is why comparing blacklists is an incredibly dated argument. While all vendors should be continually improving their technology, we also need to be realistic in our expectations.

I sat with a group of IT Directors at a web filtering roundtable recently and had the opportunity to listen to approximately 60 admins share their challenges. Very few of them absolutely loved their current product. Their biggest concerns were application blocking, up-time, and keeping pace with offsite filtering, SSL decryption capabilities, and the mixture of devices to support in 1:1 environments.

This increases the need for admins to really take a look at the culture of a prospective vendor, its vision, and the direction of that organization’s focus. Company culture defines how sales and support staff maintain a relationship with schools. Direction refers to a vendor’s dedication to education versus other markets.

The Future of Online Student Safety

A More Social Web and Other Problems Facing Schools

I eventually realized that selling web filtering by itself wasn’t exciting anymore. I had heard every argument, had overcome almost all objections and learned how to convince prospects that I had the better solution. In reality, while I represented a good product with good intentions, I was not immune to the same weaknesses that every vendor faced.

We all know that no web filter is perfect, we have had upwards of 20 years to learn this. That being said, this next generation of students is using the internet very differently. Many have school devices that they take home, they are bullying one another online. and their online life is very much a large part of their social and emotional life.

Not only has bullying increased, but suicides have as well. Students are venting their emotions online while searching and planning violent act. This has compelled districts to look more at Digital Citizenship initiatives, tip lines, and putting together crisis teams to help deal with these increasing threats.

As a result, parents are becoming increasingly concerned. They have children seemingly online 24/7 with little oversight or visibility. Consider some of what has changed in just the past few years:

  • 43% of students are bullied online, with 25% of students bullied repeatedly. Studies show that 81% of kids bully online because it is easier to get away with than in person.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people 10-18 years of age. 7.4% of students attempt suicide, 17.2% consider it, resulting in thousands of suicides in K-12 each year in the US.
  • School shootings and other violent acts are on the rise, causing great concerns for schools to direct their attention to increase student safety initiatives and be proactive.
  • Students are increasingly using the web to search for ways to harm themselves or post cries for help.

How Can We Best Respond?

There were very few principals we interviewed that had not experienced a suicide in their school. I was bullied as a child, and I could not imagine going through school today when tools are available to magnify the emotional impact bullying can have. Clearly, 1:1 initiatives and the increasingly-digital world we live in is changing what online safety needs to look like.

I am sure the thrill of choosing yet another web filter for your 1:1 environment is long gone. But when you do choose your next web filter, I challenge you to change your perspective.

A solution in place 24/7 that monitors and keeps students safe should be chosen carefully. There are many good companies entering the market with a focus on student safety. A few questions that you should consider asking as you choose your next vendor include:

  • Of all the features and solutions the company has released, and planning to release – how much of that focuses on student safety? Are they also trying to please other markets outside of education? Ask about the vendor’s roadmap and what releases are coming next. After all, you are likely signing a multi-year agreement, so know what you’re signing up for.
  • What is the corporate culture like? Do they listen to customers? Are they passionate about their mission? Do they have integrity? Interview a vendor like you would an employee. Learn about what makes them tick. A sales or support person can tell you much more than you realize because they reflect their management and the company’s mission.
  • Is web filtering all about how great a URL list is? Or is maybe now a good time to reimagine how student safety should look in 2018 and beyond?

\Why Securly Aligns With My Passion

I personally chose to work for an organization that places value on student safety above anything else. A company whose culture is one where people celebrate when a life is saved, and an engineering team that works tirelessly to solve even the slightest of inadequacies in the product.

Securly began as a cloud-based web filter, doing things I had been told for years simply was not possible without agents, software, or hardware. Securly is solving the very problems that schools with traditional appliances have always faced.

It also goes way beyond filters. Securly spent five years building its AI engine that better detects bullying and self-harm content from the many online ways kids communicate. It has recently added a 24-hour monitoring team that is actively saving lives, has added an anonymous tip line service with more context and threat analysis available than any other tip line vendor.

Securly has also shamelessly pioneered the industry’s first parental integration suite of features which has now been adopted by over 50% of our customers. This not only saves lives but empowers parents with additional involvement in their child’s online life.

The parental integration for online activity was debuted when many schools were hesitant. Still, Securly persisted as this being a solution that would make a big difference. I am proud to say that a few weeks ago we had a district commit to having parental access and controls to over 100,000 of their parents, giving over 1,000,000 parents unprecedented access to be involved in their child’s online life on school devices.

Regardless of the next company you choose to partner with, I firmly believe that now is the time to look beyond CIPA-compliance as a focus. It is time for schools to look beyond traditional filtering and invest in innovative solutions that keep students even safer, encourage digital citizenship, and build up every child’s feeling of value.

The world of web filtering has changed, and change usually comes more quickly than we can sometimes imagine. Vendors can choose to be part of that change or become victims of it.

Anders Johnsson
Vice President of Sales
Securly, Inc.

About the Author:
Anders began working with school districts in 1999, providing network support and installation services. He co-founded a national web filtering company in 2004 that served more than 1,000 districts and managed sales and operations for nearly a decade. Anders has helped other companies understand the landscape of education technology, and serves as the Vice President of Sales for Securly since 2014. He is passionate about student safety, and helping companies align their strategies with the unique needs of school districts.

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