District defends blocks

Critics say web filtering inequitable

Perry Continente, Twitter.com/perrycontinente

The controversial URL filtering implemented by the district was discussed with the newly appointed Vice Chancellor of Information and Technology Mojdeh Mehdizadeh at the Academic Senate meeting Monday, April 9.

This follows a resolution passed unanimously Feb. 26 by the senate opposing the blocking of websites and asking for the immediate halting of such practices.

District Chancellor Fred Wood introduced Mehdizadeh and expressed sympathy about the issue.

“The issue around academic freedom is an important one,” said Wood. “It is critically important to me as well.”

Wood admitted the program’s implementation was less than perfect and suggested better management could have stopped many of these problems.

“A lot of that was because Mojdeh was not executive vice chancellor,” said Wood.

Wood then turned the meeting over to Mehdizadeh, who gave a brief recap of the system and the issues with it. 

“Freedom versus security is the heart of the issue,” said Mehdizadeh, who hoped to “get us to a place where we can engage in dialogue about moving forward.”

It does affect students of low socioeconomic status more than we would want to think about.”

— Marco McMullen, LMCAS President

Before moving on to taking questions, Mehdizadeh explained a recent upgrade in Internet speed has made the blocks necessary, especially given recent security breaches at other colleges. 

“The real issue is about malware,” said Mehdizadeh, mentioning the recent attacks on Los Angeles City College as an example of what a lack of security can cause. 

The LA College was infected with a virus that locked them out of their systems until a price was paid via cryptocurrency.

“That’s the reality of the world in which we live today. There are crazy people doing crazy things and our goal is to limit the exposure,” said Mehdizadeh.

Librarian Roseanne Erwin, one of the authors of the resolution opposing the blocks, was sympathetic with the need for security but viewed the blocks as censorship.  Erwin mentioned a website blocked under the “Adult” category, www.dragqueenmerch.com as being a problematic site to block. 

To unblock this, students would be required to disclose their interest in such sites presenting an issue for many.

“I think that because this site is associated with non-heteronormative behavior the algorithm blocked it,” said Erwin who feared the blocking of such sites reflects poorly on the district.

As of press time www.dragqueenmerch.com is still blocked.

“Judgment is communicated, unfortunately,” said Erwin.

Library director Christina Goff also weighed in on the blocks.

“We are censoring our students,” said Goff. “If you are not lucky enough to have outside campus access to your own network you are getting limited access.” 

“I understand security and the need for a firewall,” she said, “but censoring at point of use based on what an algorithm deems acceptable goes against everything we stand for at community college.”

Mehdizadeh addressed these concerns.

“We talk about being inclusive and we love our students and our community. I don’t think we are going to see any backlash,” she said. “If the student is uncomfortable I understand that. They can say it’s for research — they don’t have to out anything about their personal lives.”

Addressing the economic implications of the blocks, LMC Associate Students President Marco McMullen added to the conversation.

“I want to focus on who does this really affect?” said McMullen. “It does affect students of low socioeconomic impact more than we would want to think about.”

He also discussed the time sensitive nature of homework assignments saying that a lengthy unblock time could inhibit education.

Mehdizadeh explained the plans for improvement of the system. These including circulating a custom message which would direct students on how to unblock websites, replacing the generic message currently displayed that has no instruction and suggesting a four hour maximum time limit for unblocking sites from Monday to Friday.

When asked about unblocking on Saturdays and Sundays, Mehdizadeh explained given the small amount of traffic on those days, such issues would be unlikely but the district will monitor the volume of requests during those time periods and act accordingly.

At the end of the meeting, it was clear the conversation was far from over.

“I think some very important points were made in regards to academic freedom,” said Mehdizadeh, going on to discuss the current deficiencies with the product. “It’s generic… I think that’s part of the challenge. If it was more exacting it would save us a lot of effort, but sadly it’s not.” 

She remained hopeful about improving the product in the future, saying that feedback will improve the product and its implementation.