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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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February212007

The Julie Amero in All of Us

Mainstream media has finally started covering the case of Julie Amero, the substitute teacher who was found guilty of child endangerment because some of her students saw adult-oriented popup ads on her computer screen. And the news coverage is causing a lot of educators to say to themselves in horror: It could have been me.

When I first started blogging the Julie Amero case about a month ago, I complained that the story was being neglected by mainstream media. Education bloggers and online tech magazines were talking about her conviction, but apart from Amero’s local paper in Connecticut, almost no news outlets were covering the case.

How things change. In the last couple of weeks there have been major stories in CNN and the New York Times, among other major outlets. At last count, there were more than 750 posts in the blogosphere discussing her conviction. Most bloggers seem to feel that she was wrongly convicted, while a minority appears to support the prosecution.



Technorati Chart

Posts that contain “Julie Amero” per day for the last 30 days.

It’s all too easy to get bogged down in the technical details of what may or may not have transpired that day. Whether or not you believe she was wrongly convicted, it’s pretty clear why so many educators are flocking to her defense: they’ve all experienced embarrassing situations where pornographic images have appeared on their computers beyond their control. And the thought that such an incident could lead to a 40-year jail term for Amero makes one wonder what could happen to any one of us facing a similar situation.

Numerous readers of this blog have posted their own stories, many of which bear an eerie similarity to what might have happened to Amero. Here are just a few of them.

From Larry Christianson:

I write because the same thing happened in our household. Whenever we would access the MSN home page, disgusting porn pop-ups would appear and there was no getting rid of them. We have young kids in the house that frequently open my wife’s computer. Fortunately, we saw the problem and addressed it before any “damage” was done. The solution? Remove and re-install MSN software. Apparently, the adware was attached somehow to the MSN program from some point forward until we took the link away.

From Susan:

Unfortunately, I know that she is telling the truth because almost the exact thing happened to me about 10 days ago. My husband googled “spyware” and shortly after that we had an ad for an antivirus program with pictures of graphic pornography become our homepage!!! Thank God that we discovered this and not our daughters. One of the pictures was a very young naked woman with a dog in a sexual position!! Very repulsive. I literally cried and had to leave the room and ask that my husband get rid of it. I wanted to throw the computer out the window. It can happen to anyone, uninvited. The whole thing is a tragedy.

From Linda Bruce:

I know for a fact how easily you can be redirected to another website and have porn popping up without any participation on your part. Approximately two years ago we were traveling and found ourselves stuck in a large airport. I opened our laptop, accessed the internet and proceeded to type in what I thought was the website for Delta Airlines. It was not and I was immediately redirected to what was obviously a porn website. All sorts of pop-ups began showing up with very explicit porn shots, none of which I solicited nor wanted to see. However, I could not even react fast enough to prevent the pop-ups and immediately shut my laptop for fear anyone else around me could see these same pop-ups. When my sanity took hold I had to reopen the laptop, porn and all, and shut it down as quickly as possible as that was the only way to keep the pop-ups from continuing to appear. It was the most bizarre occurrence and hasn’t happened since but it is a perfect example of how easily it can happen. At that moment it doesn’t matter if it’s your 80-year old mother or a classroom full of students looking over your shoulder or at your elbow, you are just as powerless as they to stop the pop-ups from happening and of course, anyone looking at the screen is going to be exposed to it until you can gather your senses and shut the screen or the computer down!

From: C. Mytko:

Schools seem to want to trust web filters, but we all know they are fallible. I learned the hard way that Google Images were not screened by our school filter. Years ago, student typed in “belladonna” to clarify our discussion of medieval cosmetics, but the picture that popped up was clearly not a plant. I hope that, if the pop-ups were inadventent, this substitute will be let off the hook.
Renee:
I had a similar incident in which I was connected to a projector, and the laptop I was using had a broken screen. The several second delay in my realizing what was actually going on felt like a year. First thing I did was freeze in horror. I thought I learned that no matter what you have to report it to a supervisor. I did not in this instance because the bumbling admin. was already hostile towards me for asking for working equipment, in a school with “Info. Tech.” in the title, and for a Tech class that I was drafted to teach. Admin. later heard rumor of this incident and used it to harass me more. I ended up leaving the school. Glad I did, and glad that the whole thing didn’t go any further.

While I haven’t had any major problems with adware myself, I can think of several instances when a mistyped URL or an inadvertent click led to severe embarrassment. Even as far back to the early 1990s, I can remember doing a demo of USENET bulletin boards and having a string of questions pop up, asking if I wanted to join a variety of adult bulletin boards.

From DOPA Jr. to Dateline NBC catching predators in the act, there’s no doubt that we’re going through a period in which fear of the unknown is dictating policy, often taking a zero-tolerance approach. But how do you reconcile that with the reality that many, if not most of us, have accidentally stumbled upon adult-oriented content in public or school settings? It seems we’ve all been Julie Amero at one time or another - and given the sentence she faces, that’s scary as hell. -andy

Filed under : People, Policy, Safety

Responses

Great idea to gather these testimonies, Andy. Here’s mine.

In 2000, spyware did not seem to be a big issue (or else I was lucky), but there were other ways students could get exposed to “improper material”. One day, as my students (14-15) were gathering info about their place of origin for a joint project with another class in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, one of them called out: “Look what I found!”. A picture of the classic bronze statues found in Riace, Italy, given huge erections by digital editing. For a second, I thought he was feigning being scandalized, and had looked up the site deliberately (these kids were a lively but rather provocative bunch that would go to the autopsy pictures on rotten.com to see how I’d react). But it was on the official site of the town, and the kid was genuinely upset that something he was proud of had been defaced. I explained about hacking, we looked up other untreated pictures of the statues and that was that.

In a way, my colleague and I were lucky that education authorities didn’t (want to) know anything about what using the internet, and particularly interactive internet might entail for kids, back then. As we were using an MSN “community” (now they are called groups), we first had parents sign a declaration that they had read the terms of use (which we translated: there were no French or Italian versions back then) and a fairly detailed but declaredly non comprehensive list of what kids might get exposed to if they used the internet and a MSN ID, and authorized their child to use both. So we were covered, even when kids went to - or were mislead by other kids to go to - the autopsy page on rotten.com and other inappropriate sites. We’d switch off the monitor and have a class discussion, and that was that.

Paradoxically, things got more difficult for teachers when authorities wised up and tried to impose fixed rules that were always several steps behind the actual state of things.

And they got even more difficult when the authorities decided to filter access. C. Mytko mentions Google images by-passing a filter. Actually, any frame by-passed the one introduced in schools (and the rest of the cantonal administration) in 2003. So you just had to send yourself a hotmail e-mail with a link to a search engine, because hotmail opens (opened?) links in a frame, not directly. When I mentioned this to one of our cantonal sysops, she said “We warned the authorities about this from the start, but they said only geeks would find out…”

And yet there must be some kind of institutional solution protecting teachers from incensed parents. Not just DIY ones like the one Catherine and I made in 2000, but on the same line - a declaration of awareness and acceptance of the risks entailed by using computers and the internet, on the basis of an indicative, but declaredly not exhaustive, list. Of course, in the US, things are complicated by your various well-meaning but unrealistic child protection acts and their bearing on e-rate funding. But isn’t there some leeway for something like “While the school and teachers will do their utmost to prevent children from being exposed to inappropriate material, parents must be aware that no full protection from such material is possible”?

A few years ago, I did a workshop in a district and the conversation got around to filtering. I asked if they had filtering in place in the district. They said yes. So I told them I would show them how the filter reacts to an nappropriate site. I then asked to an inappropriate search term. One of them said “boobs”. I didn’t do a search. I just went to the browser and typed in http//www.boobs.com and hit enter.

To my surprise, it was not blocked and I had hit a site that takes control of the browser. Every time I closed a window, another opened up. After about a minute of this, half of the teachers were in shock and the other half were laughing and half wondering whether it was a set up.

Just about this time the principal, superintendent, and technology coordinator came in the room. Fortunately, I knew them and explained I was showing the teachers how well the district filter worked. At that point, the tech coordinator informed me that it was summer, there were no student in the building, they worked on the firewall the day before and the filter was not turned on. To everyone’s relief, that seemed to explain the situation, but needless to say, the discussion went on for a while and the teachers realized the role they had to play in working with kids to teach them how to handle a variety of situations.

But that’s not the strange part. Here’s the part I couldn’t have scripted even if I wanted to. TWO years later, I was telling this story to someone and realized that I had never tried boobs.com on a filtered system. By coincidence, I was in a district that was using the same filter and the filter was fully functional. I typed in the URL and guess what? That’s right! Two years later the site was still there UNBLOCKED and mousetrapping anyone who went there.

Postscript - I just checked boobs.com from my home computer (unfiltered). It has tamed down a lot. It no longer mousetraps and it has a text based home page that warns of adult content.

Amero may be incompetent, but her incompetence pales as compared to that of the prosecutor and judge (both attorneys), and the jury. FOr starters, the PC in question was not secured…anyone could have had access to it. The real problem here is, Amero IS guilty—-guilty due to a very stupid Connecticut law, which no doubt came about due to politicians falling over themselves to pass laws in response to headlines. The law she ran afoul of is one of a low threshold, and yet it carries with it severe penalties.

I expect our school filter to protect me as much as the students. This “Amero” experience has really shaken me up! I show websites in class from time to time on my Smartboard (interactive whiteboard) and while I always preview anything that link that I intend to show to the class, mistakes can occur. Where is my teaching union when I need it?

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