December 5, 2023

Inside America’s School Internet Censorship Machine

Inside America’s School Internet Censorship Machine

AROUND DINNER TIME one night in July, a student in Albuquerque, New Mexico, googled “suicide prevention hotline.” They were automatically blocked. The student tried again, using their Albuquerque Public Schools district–issued laptop to search for “contact methods for suicide.” Blocked. They were turned away again a few hours later when attempting to access a webpage on the federally-funded Suicide Prevention Resource Center. More than a dozen times that night, the student tried to access online mental health resources, and the district’s web filter blocked their requests for help every time.

In the following weeks, students and staff across Albuquerque tried and failed to reach crisis mental health resources on district computers. An eighth grader googled “suicide hotline” on their take-home laptop, a ninth grader looked up “suicide hotline number,” a high school counselor googled “who is a mandated reporter for suicide in New Mexico,” and another counselor at an elementary school tried to download a PDF of the district’s suicide prevention protocol. Blocked, blocked, blocked—all in a state with among the highest suicide rates in the US.

Thanks in large part to a two-decade-old federal anti-porn law, school districts across the US restrict what students see online using a patchwork of commercial web filters that block vast and often random swathes of the internet. Companies like GoGuardian and Blocksi—the two filters used in Albuquerque—govern students’ internet use in thousands of US school districts. As the national debate over school censorship focuses on controversial book-banning laws, a WIRED investigation reveals how these automated web filters can perpetuate dangerous censorship on an even greater scale.

WIRED requested internet censorship records from 17 public school districts around the US, painting a picture of the widespread digital censorship taking place across the country. Our investigation focuses on Albuquerque Public Schools (APS), one of the largest school districts in the US, which provided the most complete look at its web-filtering systems. APS shared 36 gigabytes of district network logs covering January 2022 to August 21, 2023, offering an unprecedented look at the kinds of content blocked by US schools on a daily basis. Our analysis of more than 117 million censorship records confirms what students and civil rights advocates have long warned: Web filters are preventing kids from finding critical information about their health, identity, and the subjects they’re studying in class.

“It’s just like another form of oppression,” Brooklynn Chavez, a senior at La Cueva High School in northeast Albuquerque, says of the district’s filters. “It’s like an awful kind of feeling.”

It’s a problem that’s not going away. This summer, APS installed Blocksi web filters on all student and staff devices. According to our analysis and interviews with APS staff, the results seemed to be disastrous. During the nearly three months APS used the Blocksi filter, it blocked more than a million network requests a day, on average, including searches for mental and physical health services; words related to LGBTQ+, Black, and Hispanic communities; websites for local youth groups; thousands of student searches for harmless information; and tens of thousands of news articles

APS, which installed Blocksi in May, stopped using the filter on most of its devices in August due to its restrictiveness, Harris says, and returned to the GoGuardian filter it used before the switch. Our investigation raises questions about the appropriateness and implementation of GoGuardian’s filter as well.

In May, before the district switched to Blocksi, the GoGuardian filter blocked an eighth grader from searching for “suicide prevention.” It prevented a third grader from searching the word “latina” and a sixth grader from searching “black man.” When an 11th grader googled “Obergefell v. Hodges ruling,” instead of a list of websites with information about the landmark United States Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage, the student saw a gray screen with APS’s logo and the message: “Restricted. This website has been blocked by your administrator.”

It is difficult to determine who exactly is responsible for a given content restriction. While APS administrators set the network policy for the entire district, individual teachers can also choose what to filter with GoGuardian—including whether to turn off the internet entirely for a particular student or class during a lesson, according to Harris. Outside of school hours, parents can also use the Blocksi and GoGuardian parent apps that APS provides to set their own restrictions on their kids’ school-issued devices.

Blocksi did not respond to multiple requests for comment or answer detailed questions about censorship of APS web activity.

Jeff Gordon, director of public relations for GoGuardian, tells WIRED, “GoGuardian regularly evaluates our website categorization to ensure, to the best of our ability, that legitimate educational sites are accessible to students by default.” He said more than 7,600 school districts use the company’s web filter and referred all questions about whether the blocked activity in Albuquerque was appropriately censored to the district.

Sithara Subramanian, an 11th grader at La Cueva High School, says she began to run into her school’s GoGuardian filter on a regular basis around the time remote learning ended. “It got kind of intense when we went back to school, like educational websites were being blocked,” Subramanian says. The censorship has been particularly frustrating for her biology and anatomy studies. “It felt like they were trying to restrict our education rather than enhance it.”

“My son says the filters make the internet useless,” Sarah Hooten, the mother of Henry, a 13-year-old former APS student, tells WIRED. Henry says that he couldn’t use YouTube to look up information for a report he was assigned about rainforests. “I know it’s partly to do with blocking kids from doing what they aren’t supposed to be doing,” Henry says. “But it’s also just the school not understanding what they are blocking.”

What Went Wrong

THE SCALE OF censorship we found in Albuquerque’s schools shows how web filters can twist seemingly simple decisions to block unwanted online content into policies that render the internet near impossible to use.

In one instance, an APS staff member was unable to view The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize–winning 1619 Project, a historical exploration of slavery and its consequences in the United States, because of an apparently misguided keyword block in the district’s Blocksi filter. The district’s web-filter blocked websites containing the keyword “avery.” This blocked hundreds of attempts to access the website of a printing company,, although APS officials could not explain why “avery” was keyword-blocked. But because the URL for the 1619 Project includes the word “slavery,” it was also blocked. So was a Stanford University lecture about slaverya Wikipedia map of slavery in the United States, and several articles about a controversial Florida curriculum about slavery.

While most of the keywords WIRED reviewed are meant to restrict pornographic content and games, some appear to have unintentionally caused broader restrictions that prevented students from accessing legitimate educational content. A ban on the word “assault,” for example, blocked news articles at least 60 times, including stories from The AtlanticCNN, and the Associated Press. In total, APS blocked students accessing news websites nearly 40,000 times.

“It’s not the right approach to try and censor information because we are afraid of how they are going to react to it,” Caitlin Vogus, deputy director of advocacy at the Freedom of the Press foundation, tells WIRED. “If anyone in our society has a stake in reading about school shootings, it’s the students themselves.”

The banned keywords also show that someone—APS could not say who—blocked access to critical health websites. For example, the websites of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Planned Parenthood were keyword blocked. CDC web pages, including many specifically pertaining to Covid-19, were censored as many as 1,607 times. Planned Parenthood pages were censored more than 50 times in Albuquerque while Blocksi was in use.

APS communications director Monica Armenta tells WIRED that, “to the best of my knowledge,” the district didn’t purposefully block URLs containing “avery” or the websites of the CDC and Planned Parenthood.

“We regularly referred our families and staff to the CDC for guidance on Covid,” Armenta says. “We did not find any issues with students or staff accessing CDC, Planned Parenthood, or ‘avery’ during school hours.” At the time of Armenta’s response, the district was no longer using the Blocksi filter that restricted those websites.

Nearly three-quarters of the blocked activity WIRED examined was not explicitly tied to a keyword, and the data APS provided did not explain why those web pages triggered the district’s filters.

Blocksi says it sorts content into 79 preset categories to make its blocking decisions. Those categories include “alternative beliefs,” “abortion,” “sex education,” “folklore,” and “meaningless content.” School staff can choose which of those categories to block, allow, or block with a warning.

Harris, Albuquerque’s educational technology director, says the word “gay” shouldn’t have been blocked on its own but might have triggered another rule in the filter. After googling “gay” on her own computer, she speculated that GoGuardian might have blocked the search because the results page includes Google Maps listings for several bars in Albuquerque that cater to LGBTQ+ customers, and the district has chosen to block content related to alcohol on its devices.

GoGuardian’s filter can trigger automatic alerts to school staff about browsing activity. During an interview with WIRED, Harris received a GoGuardian Smart Alert notifying her that a student was looking at potentially dangerous material online. “This poor child is getting targeted because [they searched] ‘how to draw grass,’” Harris says. “And so it’s probably thinking ‘grass’ is marijuana.”

Harris says APS allows staff and students to request that content be unblocked. Several of the students who spoke to WIRED say they wouldn’t feel comfortable asking administrators to unblock content.

Tiera Tanksley, a research fellow who studies youth and technology policy at UCLA, tells WIRED that schools need to consider the consequences of over-filtering, especially when technology like GoGuardian’s Smart Alerts automatically notifies adults about what kids are looking at online.

“We have to remember who’s using school-issued devices,” Tanksley says. “It’s already baked in that these are going to be lower income, probably people of color, just because of the economic disparities. Getting flagged multiple times trying to access inappropriate content is opening the door for other types of disciplinary disparities,” she argues.

During the 2022-2023 school year, 66 percent of APS students identified as Hispanic, 20 percent as white, 5 percent as American Indian or Alaskan native, and 3 percent as Black, according to data published by the school district. Nearly 68 percent of the district’s students received free school meals, which is a rough reflection of how many families live near the poverty line and slightly higher than the national average.

Our investigation found that both the Blocksi and GoGuardian filters used by APS censored a wide range of words, websites, and online resources related directly to race and ethnicity. And students who spoke to WIRED say they were frequently blocked while attempting to research historical events that involved racism or violence.

When a 12th grader at the city’s Atrisco Heritage Academy High School tried to ask Google for information about “structural racism black community,” GoGuardian blocked their search, records reviewed by WIRED show. It also nixed a ninth grader’s search for illustrations of Black people, a seventh grader’s search for “pueblo indians,” a fourth grader’s image search for “immigrant,” and a ninth grader’s image search for “el mobimiento [sic] chicano”—the Mexican-American Chicano Movement of the 1960s.

Blocksi’s filters blocked similar search terms, including “how oppressed are black people.” And it blocked hundreds of attempts to access legal information for immigrants at On July 27, it prevented an APS staff member from opening the form used to apply for US citizenship online, APS records show.

Chavez, the La Cueva High School senior who leads their school’s Native American Student Union, says the district’s filters have hindered their attempts to research Indigenous heritage and Indigenous protests. ”Because I can’t find information on certain Indigenous topics, I’m wondering about kids who are younger than me, Indigenous kids who are trying to look up their heritage, trying to learn about their heritage,” Chavez says. “It frustrates me because they can’t. It’s not easily accessible, especially during school hours.”

Content related to gender, sexuality, and identity was also blocked across Albuquerque. For instance, the district’s web filters prevented six students from visiting pages at the Trevor Project, one of the nation’s leading LGBTQ+ youth advocacy groups. Even the websites of local youth nonprofits, including Together for Brothers and the Southwest Organizing Project, were restricted. Three different middle schoolers, on three different days, searched for “pride flag” and were blocked.

In a statement to WIRED, Casey Pick, director of law & policy for the Trevor Project, characterized APS’s censorship as “dangerous” and “unethical.”

“Blocking content inherently suggests that it’s something that is inappropriate or that people shouldn’t see or know about,” says Josh Block, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who focuses on the civil-liberties-focused nonprofit’s LGBT and HIV Project. “That certainly has a message that reverberates beyond just the computer screen.”

Gordon, the GoGuardian spokesperson, says the company “does not block searches or restrict access to legitimate educational sites by default, nor do we block LGBTQIA+, reproductive health, or racial justice websites by default.”

Web pages belonging to the ACLU were blocked 68 times.

Safety vs. Education

THE CONSEQUENCES OF school web filtering reach far beyond Albuquerque. Virtually every school in the US uses an automatic web filter, largely due to the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) passed by Congress in 2000. The law requires schools and libraries to block “child pornography” and other content deemed “obscene” or “harmful to minors” in order to be eligible for federal technology aid known as E-rate funding.

In districts like Albuquerque’s, which invested millions to provide take-home computers to students, the filters have increasingly come to govern kids’ online lives both inside and outside of school. Our investigation found that nearly 10 percent of the blocks between January 2022 and August 2023 occurred on weekends.

The filters catch plenty of content that district officials say should legitimately be blocked—some students try to look at porn, many try to play online games during school, and a significant portion of the content blocked by Albuquerque’s filters appears to be pop-ups, advertisements, and spam. Harris says the district has intentionally chosen to block students from accessing generative AI tools; during the three months it was in place, Blocksi prevented more than 41,000 attempts to access ChatGPT.

“There are hundreds of thousands of sites that are being created every day that we don’t have the resources to vet and look at all the time,” Harris says. “We do the best with our resources and our stance really is to limit the amount of filtering and teach digital citizenship.”

Since CIPA was first proposed in 1998, critics and supporters alike have raised concerns about the impact of web-filtering technology and the balance between free access to information and safety.

“I am very concerned about censorship,” the law’s primary sponsor, late Arizona Senator John McCain, told The New York Times in February 1998. “But I think we need to act to try and provide some rules, otherwise we may find ourselves in a situation where Americans say, ‘Look, this has got to stop; we are willing to sacrifice some of our civil liberties to protect our children.’”

Students and civil rights groups have continued to fight against web censorship. In 2011, the ACLU launched a “Don’t Filter Me” campaign that encouraged schools to stop using web filters that blocked LGBTQ+ content. The campaign culminated in a 2012 case in which a federal court ordered the school district in Camdenton, Missouri, to stop using a filter that explicitly blocked non-adult LGBTQ+ websites.

In the decade since that ruling, students have consistently complained about school web filters’ allegedly discriminatory blocking patterns. A student in Hawaii claimed his school’s Securly web filter was labeling sites that had “gay” in the domain as pornography. In Park City, Utah, students complained that they were allegedly prevented from searching for words including “gay,” “lesbian,” and “queer.” And in Katy, Texas, student protests and an ACLU complaint last year forced the school district to stop using a web filter with a category that the complaint said had been titled “Alternative Sexual Lifestyles (GLBT) Global” and blocked access to the Trevor Project and other LGBTQ+ support organizations’ websites.

Victories against inaccurate and potentially dangerous web filters are rare. In September, a nationwide survey conducted by the Center for Democracy and Technology found that a majority of students believe their school’s web filter hinders their ability to do schoolwork. In schools with web filters, 71 percent of students agreed that it was sometimes hard to complete school assignments because web filters were blocking access to essential information. The same percentage of students said they’d been blocked from visiting websites they felt they should have been allowed to visit. And LGBTQ+ students reported being blocked from content at higher rates than non-LGBTQ+ students on both questions.

More than half of the teachers who responded to CDT’s survey (57 percent) agreed that their school’s web filters made completing assignments harder. Thirty-seven percent of teachers believed their school’s web filters were more likely to block content associated with LGBTQ+ students, and 32 percent believed the filters were more likely to block content associated with students of color.

Chavez, the senior at La Cueva High School in northeast Albuquerque, says they and many other students at their high school have stopped using their APS-purchased Chromebooks altogether. Instead, they say, students now bring their personal laptops from home to school. But other students say they don’t have that option.

“It totally inhibits me from doing proper research or slows down my whole workflow,” Mateo, a senior at another APS high school who asked that we not use his real name, says of the district’s filters. But his school won’t allow students to bring personal laptops, meaning he has no choice but to use the filtered internet.

“I think it’s kind of redundant and almost offensive,” Mateo says, “that they would try to censor everything to such an obscene degree.”


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