Nonnewaug High School in Connecticut found itself thrust in the spotlight after student Andrew Lampart noticed that certain websites were blocked by the school's firewall service, Dell SonicWALL. The websites seemed to be blocked if they represented a conservative ideology.
A statement released by Superintendent Jody Ian Goeler Thursday says in part that his district "pressed Dell SonicWall for more information about how the websites are assigned to categories and why there are apparent inconsistencies, as discovered by the student, in classifications particularly along conservative and liberal lines." Additionally, Goeler said that the district "does not block individual sites, only categories of websites [which are determined by Dell SonicWALL]."
This is a key distinction consistent with statements made by Patrick Sweeney, Executive Director of Product Management of Dell SonicWALL. In a teleconference, Sweeney told the Examiner that websites are placed into categories, which are then used by the local administrators. The process is two-fold, Sweeney explained.
Websites are chosen to be categorized based on their online presence, so that obscure websites are likely not placed into categories at all, unless a request is made. Once a website is ready to be placed in a category, a technician places the website accordingly.
The school administrators can easily change the categories, but Sweeney does not believe that the school would change individual websites. In an email, Public Relations contact Celeste Malia of Eastwick said that while "technically, any administrator can take control and either create their own customer category and put their own URLs in it, or they can specify Allowed and Forbidden sites," Dell "doesn't believe the school was using that feature to block targeted Political sites."
Sweeney acknowledged that the process is not perfect, and some websites could be placed into one category, but could conceptually fit into another.
The NRA website was one of the sites Lampart indicated was blocked. If one checks the category for the NRA, it falls under "Sports, recreation." The gun control group, Moms Demand Action, however is (inexplicably) placed under "Social Networking/Web Communications." Some of the websites are clearly miscategorized, but the question is about intent.
Were the websites placed into certain categories based on political ideology?
Lampert mentioned Planned Parenthood as one of the accessible websites, noting that pro-life groups are blocked. Planned Parenthood is placed into the "Health" category, as is "Pro-life.com." But "prolifeaction.org" is placed under "political/advocacy groups." If a school decided to block "political/advocacy groups," it is conceivable that Lampert would not have been able to access certain pro-life websites. It all depends on what sites Lampert specifically used for his investigation.
Anyone can check the categories where websites are placed, and many of them are miscategorized, frankly. Townhall.com, a news organization, is placed in "political/advocacy groups," while the Drudge Report is listed under "news/media." Christianity.com, another website indicated by Lampert as being blocked, is categorized under "religion," while Islam-guide.com is filed under "reference." Based on Lampert's investigation, it seems that his high school blocks the "religion" category, the "political/advocacy groups" category and the "sports/recreation" category. It is likely that they block other categories, as well.
In this author's humble opinion, the current evidence does not show intent to block websites based on political ideology.
Whether or not Andrew Lampart's very valid suspicions were realized, he should be commended for speaking out in the face of what seemed like political bias.
Notably, Dell SonicWALL allows for feedback on their categorizations.