Thursday, July 01, 2010

Google encrypted search - implications for schools and ISPs

Google's recent decision to launch a secure search facility caused major problems for educational internet service providers such as Regional Broadband Consortia and local authorities, and in the US introduced problems for school districts and states that could even affect their e-Rate funding, as reported on eSchoolNews.  So they are to be commended for responding relatively quickly to the problems they had introduced.  But have they gone far enough?

Delivering a safe Internet experience to schools has always been challenging.  I spent 5 years doing it, and it was the hardest part of educational internet service provision to get right.  Offering users the facility to hide what they are searching for from their service provider has a number of implications for educational ISPs:
  • They will be unable to filter based on search terms
  • It removes the ability for them to analyse or report on search behaviour across their networks
When Google first introduced their secure search it also made it impossible to block access to the secure search page without also affecting access to Google Mail and Google Apps for Education.  UK educational internet service providers reluctantly blocked access to these services for safeguarding reasons - presumably this is partly what prompted Google to move so quickly, as this move was likely to drive schools sector customers to alternative services such as Microsoft's Live@Edu offering.  It should be noted that Microsoft were also responsible for introducing similar challenges for educational ISPs in 2009 when Bing introduced an explicit image filtering service which was not easily compatible with most filtering products.

So, well done Google for responding.  A shame that the response was announced not with a new blog posting but just an update to the original post that announced what they were planning to do.  Full marks to those educational internet service providers who spotted the announcement and have already tested and implemented solutions.  In future the challenge should be for all those involved in the delivery of such solutions to ensure before introducing them that they will work effectively in school situations.  So come on Google, Microsoft, and filtering software providers.  Let's see you working together to help schools offer a safe online environment for all.