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'Welcome to China'... Chicago Public Schools officials try blocking teacher access to Substance News website

After witnessing a dramatic drop in recorded traffic on the Substance website (www.substancenews.net), Substance staff and supporters began a careful campaign of accessing the site from various locations and computers during the third week of April. The result of the testing of access was a discovery that the Chicago Board of Education began slowing down access to the Substance website at some point in March or April 2010 — and began blocking the site altogether from Board of Education computers on April 15 or April 16, 2010. By April 20, no one trying to get to SubstanceNews from a CPS location (even if using her own computer, but through the CPS wireless network) was able to get to the Substance site.

A camera photograph of the screen Chicago Board of Education employees have been getting when they tried to go to the Substance website at www.substancenews.net since mid-April 2010. The above photograph was taken on the afternoon of April 20, 2010, after Substance staff and supporters began what Substance is calling "Project POUNDAWAY" to expose and stop the censorship of Substance by Ron Huberman and other CPS officials. Substance photo. “Welcome to China,” one Chicago high school teachers told Substance after trying unsuccessfully to log in to the Substance website from a computer at his school throughout the day on April 20, 2010. The teacher asked to remain anonymous because of widespread retaliation by the Huberman administration against its critics. The reference was to the recent dispute between censors for the Chinese government and Google over access to the Internet from computers in China, which has a totalitarian government.

Following the issuance of a bulletin to all Substance staff by the editor (this reporter) early in the morning of April 20, more than a dozen Chicago public school teachers tried to log into www.substancenews.net during the school day. All failed, greeted by the same message (see screen photograph with this article). The message implied that the problem was not censorship from CPS officials, but some flaw in Substance.

By early afternoon on April 20, 2010, Substance had acquired more than a dozen separate examples of teachers being blocked from substancenews.net when they tried to log in from computers in Chicago public schools. All were doing their log ins during their lunch or preparation periods. Not one person who tried to get to www.substancenews.net from a Chicago Board of Education computer on the morning and early afternoon of April 20 was able to do so.

All of those who reported the censorship to Substance reported that they were receiving the same message when they tried to go to substancenews.net:

"The system cannot communicate with the external server (www.substancenews.net ;). The Internet server may be busy, may be permanently down, or may be unreachable because of network problems. Please check the spelling of the Internet address entered. If it is correct, try this request later. If you have questions, or feel this is an error, please contact your corporate network administrator and provide the codes shown below. Notification codes: (1, GATEWAY _TIMEOUT, www. substancenews.net)..."

Because Substance has reserved its domain names and contracted for server space from Network Solutions, the message was damaging to the reputations of both Substance and the oldest name in Web domain naming and hosting.

Meanwhile, access from other locations in the USA and elsewhere was generally both quick and complete. From Vermont to San Diego, Substance staff and supporters reported that they were able to go to www.substancenews.net. Only Chicago teachers trying to get to the site from Chicago public schools computers during their preparation and lunch times were being blocked. In early afternoon, Substance confirmed that CPS central office workers were also being denied access to the site when they tried to go here from CPS computers.

At noon, I called the Board of Education’s Office of Communications and spoke to Malon Edwards, a communications specialist in that department. I asked him for a copy of the directive from Ron Huberman or Monique Bond telling CPS network administrators to block teacher access to the Substance website. Edwards stated that CPS was not blocking access to www.substance news.net, but when he tried to log in from his office on the 6th floor of the Board’s headquarters at 125 S. Clark St., he got the same result that had been reported to Substance over the previous several days, which I’m calling the “Stall and Stop.”

First, loading for the request to go to the Substance site takes an inordinate amount of time (the “Stall”). If the user is patient enough to wait out the more than two minutes of the “Stall”, then the user gets the “Stop” — a message stating that the site cannot be accessed, and that the block is probably the fault of Substance or the Substance server.

When I told Edwards that Substance contracts with Network Solutions both for our domain name and for our server site, and that Network Solutions was therefore being criticized in the implication published by CPS, he did not respond. Attorneys contacted by Substance told this reporter on April 20 that the attempt by CPS to block the site was probably a violation of the consent decree issued by U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve in the case of “Lynch v. Huberman” on March 26, 2010. Judge St. Eve on that day issued a preliminary injunction against the Chicago Board of Education and CEO Ron Huberman because the Board had violated the First Amendment rights of teachers by refusing to allow CTU election campaign meetings and mailbox distribution, based on urging by the leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Judge St. Eve did not address the question of Internet censorship against websites critical of CPS administration in her decision because it was not one of the issues brought before the court at the time.

One of the ironies of the April attack on Substance Web access by CPS officials is that less than a month earlier, CPS attorneys had used material from www.substancenews.net as evidence in federal court. In the Chicago Board of Education’s response to the complaint in Lynch v. Huberman, CPS included an article taken from the Substance site to demonstrate that Deborah Lynch and her fellow plaintiffs could hold large meetings even if they couldn’t meet on school property. While the message received by CPS employees, including those at Central Office, implied that the cause of the blockage was something wrong with Substance and SubstanceNews, Substance staff and supporters from across the USA were able to access the site (which loads quickly except from CPS computers) from coast to coast and from Canada. Only CPS computes operating in Chicago public schools were subjected to the “Stall and Stop” campaign.

By the end of the day on April 20, 2010, some teachers who had stayed late in their school reported that they were again able to get to the SubstanceNews site from CPS computers.

The fact checking of CPS access will continue on April 21 and April 22 by Substance staff and friends. As of the end of the day on April 20, 2010, CPS officials continued to deny that Ron Huberman or his top aides had ordered CPS network administrators to block teachers and other school staff from www.substancenews.net. “We did not issue an order to block Substance,” CPS Communications aide Malon Edwards told Substance. CPS CEO Ron Huberman and Chief Communications Officer Monique Bond have refused to return phone calls from Substance for more than six months on a variety of issues from budget to Internet access. 

This article, 'Welcome to China...' was posted at www.substancenews.net by 7:00 a.m. on April 20, 2010. All contents, including photographs and other graphics, are copyrighted 2010 by Substance, Inc. all rights reserved. Colleagues and friends can utilize this material widely, provided that they indicate that the material originated at www.substancenews.net. Permission to reprint this article or any of its content can be secured by calling the Substance office (773-725-7502) or by email to Csubstance@aol.com. Generally, permission is granted to teachers and brothers and sisters in the labor movement without regard to costs. Republication of any of the content of this report without the express permission of the editor of Substance is forbidden.



Comments:

April 21, 2010 at 10:16 AM

By: Sharon Schmidt

Good News

It only took 12 seconds this morning to get to the website from a Dell at school.

April 21, 2010 at 1:39 PM

By: xian from CORE

Yes. Thank goodness.

No problems from here...

April 21, 2010 at 5:38 PM

By: bob

Blocked

Blocked

Since last Friday this site has been blocked at school.Today it was working

Now I opened it at home and my virus protection told me it is a blocked site

because it has a virus! I got through on the third time, and since my virus protection

Is up to date what the hell is going on?

April 21, 2010 at 5:41 PM

By: Bob

The message

This is the message I recieved.

The page you are trying to access has been identified as a known exploit, phishing, or social engineering web site and therefore has been blocked for your safety. Without protection, such as that in the AVG Security Toolbar and AVG, your computer is at risk of being compromised, corrupted or having your identity stolen. Please follow one of the suggestions below to continue.

April 22, 2010 at 2:55 AM

By: George N. Schmidt

Hacker attacks on www.substancenews.net

Thanks, Bob. We've received various messages such as the one you quote, and it's clear that we're under some kind of hacker attack, that at one point included CPS blocking our site. We've examined the underlying site architecture and have concluded that the messages are the result of hackers and not because the site is carrying problems. I hope others will share the different messages they are getting, as you did (above). Please share, additionally, the virus and spam software you're running, since that is part of the problem we seem to be facing.

April 22, 2010 at 10:30 AM

By: anon2

hacks

It is a message from the gods of the internet: anonymous is king.

April 22, 2010 at 11:14 AM

By: xian from CORE

I doubt it

I think anonymous would much rather deal with the corrupt overlords of our school system than mess with our independent newspaper. After all, some of us have a reasonable amount of respect for the actual anonymous.

April 22, 2010 at 1:17 PM

By: Danielle

To Bob....

Bob, you have a virus on your computer, AVG is a trojan program, anytime you see AVG you already have the virtumonde virus. Good luck getting rid of it. When I had a PC I swept and swept and swept my computer, but it kept coming back. I even used programs that people claimed got rid of the virus, but it always came back. It targets random websites that you visit. No matter if you click yes or no on the windows it pops up, the virus still settles in. Good luck getting rid of it. Virtumonde made me get a Mac. Best decision I ever made!

April 22, 2010 at 3:06 PM

By: Bob

Blocked

Blocked

Actually I know the virus you are talking about it is not that.

The message ONLY appeared in conjunction with the Substance web site

If you notice is says : “The page ( Substance ) you are trying to access has been identified as a known exploit, phishing, or social engineering web site and therefore has been blocked for your safety”

The nasty virus of which you speak refers to ALL sites. I even went to some nasty sites

And the Socialist Workers Party site, no message. It was so odd I had to ask if anybody else

Had this experience

April 22, 2010 at 3:25 PM

By: Danny

Danielle is mistaken

AVG is an antivirus software and has been the most downloaded software program from Cnet's downloads.com for the past couple years. The two most current versions alone have been downloaded more than 3-1/2 million times.

I have a friend who uses AVG who told me it gave him the same warning message Bob writes about. My Windows OneCare antivirus program also gave me a message, and I sent George a screenshot of that.

April 22, 2010 at 6:32 PM

By: George N. Schmidt

CPS admits it blocked substancenews.net

After I put up the main story describing the fact that CPS (alone) had blocked the Substance Web site, I got a call from a CPS official who confirmed that. On the night shift I'm going to FOIA all documents dealing with this censorship, since "Information Technology" (IT) doesn't just do this kind of thing on its own. We'll report tomorrow on the latest, and follow up from there, since someone ordered IT at CPS to block access, then pulled away when we started asking questions.

Thanks for everyone's help. By the time the first round of this was over and people were able to access substancenews.net again from CPS, we had heard from more than 20 people, many providing us with screen shots and other evidence. One of the strange things was that there were a couple of different messages CPS used against us, each implying that Substance was carrying a virus, "malware", or some other nasty thing.

Thanks to everyone who pitched in. My estimate is that the block cost us between 50,000 and 100,000 hits during the time it was in effect, but of course there is no way to prove that except by comparing our "Site Stats" from a comparable average over the past few months. I first noticed it when Mondays began dropping, but didn't smell the real rat until a few days later.

With the reporting we'll be doing on the upcoming CTU election (fundraisers tomorrow; that "honor Marilyn Stewart" thing with $5,000 tables; the forum at Curie next week; etc., etc., etc.) and the fact that teachers are now beginning to go on strike against these cuts -- and the nonsense from "Race To The Top" making everything a competition, like some stupid game -- across the USA, it's going to be an interesting time. Thanks to everyone who helped.

April 23, 2010 at 1:43 PM

By: James Klock

Oh, hire someone who knows something about IT, would you?

Six years ago, I left an IT career, which included managing TCIP/IP routers, to become a teacher. My first thought when I saw this story was, "That's highly unlikely."

While I don't doubt that teachers experienced the network slowdown/timeouts that you describe, I think it's exceptionally unlikely that it was through any deliberate effort on CPS' part. It is technologically feasible, but it takes considerable effort to establish that kind of packet-filtering, and I think that you're flattering yourselves to think that they'd bother.

Much, much more likely is that there was an outage in some of the equipment in the PUBLIC internet, somewhere between CPS' internet gateway and your server. There are potentially hundreds of different computers that handle traffic between any two Internet presences, and it's much more likely that one of those machines (owned and operated by neither CPS, nor you, nor anyone hired by either CPS or you) failed to route traffic properly.

Just as a quick note, I did a quick search, and see that your web server (a) reports itself under your hosting provider's name to traceroute requests (which actually timeout, but that's not too surprising these days) and (b) resolves under different authoritative DNS servers when finding you in different WHOIS lookups. Either of these could complicate routing, making it less likely that a problem somewhere on the default route will cause exactly the sort of slowdown/timeout issues your site experienced.

In short, there's exactly NO evidence to support your wild assumption that there was any malicious intent, and anyone with any idea of how computer networks operate can attest to that. Sloppy conspiracy theory.

April 23, 2010 at 1:56 PM

By: Margaret Wilson

Retired teacher/parent

What about the fact that a CPS official confirmed that they blocked it?

April 23, 2010 at 6:27 PM

By: bob

James

Dear James

Welcome abroad I don’t know what caused my problem with this website but it did

happen. Last week it would not open at school. Monday and Tuesday of this week I

Got the message I copied and pasted above . It was the language of the message that took me by

surprise. My virus protection did not report, kill or quarantine a virus I just got that message. Today all is well.

April 26, 2010 at 2:21 PM

By: John Silva

And then we discovered the boogie man in every classroom

James is correct. I also spent a number of years in IT before becoming a teacher. The error message displayed above is most likely the result of a bad DNS server somewhere in the numerous routing locations between a computer and the actual server of the web site. The problem could have occured with the ISP, the Domain host, the domain registrar, the web host, or somewhere in between.

Anyone ever heard of Occam's Razor? Is this the result of a deliberate conspiracy on the part of CPS to block access to a site in the most complicated and convoluted way possible or a server error somewhere?

April 26, 2010 at 5:11 PM

By: George N. Schmidt

'Ocham' proved Substance was blocked by CPS! Not the boogie person...

It's been interesting reading some of the comments, here and elsewhere, to this thread. Among the more interesting ones are the "I was an IT guy..." comments. Let me just share a little with Mr. Silva (above), who is also being asked to confirm his e-mail ID with us, as is our custom.

Were Mr. Silva's snarky musings (and his headline) accurate, there might be some substance to his suggestion. But as a matter of fact, we did do the "Ocham's Razor" thing, confirming, within about 24 hours, that only CPS had discovered this "bad DNS server somewhere in the numerous routing locations between a computer and the actual server of the website..."

The only computers that faced the problem we began identifying on April 19 and confirmed on April 20 were those operating off the CPS system, ostensibly under CPS acceptable use policies. Nothing -- I repeat, nothing -- was affected outside the CPS system. Within the CPS system (both the schools and central office) anyone who tried during those days (and possibly a couple of days before, as our stats suggest) to log in from any CPS computer -- or from a personal computer of their own via the CPS network -- was blocked. Once you were outside the CPS framework, no block. No a block away from Portage Park Elementary School, where our office was, or 2,000 miles or more away, in San Diego or Vancouver.

That's the Ocham's Razor test, and as is obvious, it contradicts the snarkiness of a couple of the experts covering something up here.

CPS was the only place on the planet that this problem was discovered, and at which our site was blocked for some period of time to still be identified. That's Ocham's Razor -- or, less pretentiously, troubleshooting -- in this particular iteration of Chicago silliness.

I'm sure that our host (Network Solutions) would be interested in learning that there are some "IT" guys suggesting that somehow Network Solutions had achieved this result -- and only for CPS.

Not likely.

By April 19, the last full day before we caught up with this attack on our system, our stats were down to 5,572 "hits" (as opposed to 21,898 in February on February 19), and we were caught in the middle of an eight-day spread when our site stats, for the first time this year, had been reduced to fewer than 10,000 "hits" per day for more than a week.

Once the block was lifted, the stats doubled or more again, indicating more normal usage. And by April 21, we had 16,799 hits, which was more than the same date in February (15,833). I'm glad that we've gotten the attention of a few new interested parties with this discussion. CPS has also informed me that they are clarifying their most recent clarification, and soon after it arrives in our email box (Csubstance@aol.com) we'll report that.

One of the reasons we reserved our domain name(s) and do our hosting through Network Solutions is that the Internet world is filled with -- how shall we put this without discouraging entrepreneuership and/or innovation and/or whatever else the Ayn Randy buzzword is this month? -- fly-by-night outfits and outright scams. Many people have learned this the hard way, when they've gotten involved in some too good to be true cell phone or email plan.

Back in the 1980s, when I was running the Macintosh Computer Classroom (praised by Apple and publicized in their teacher literature back then) at Amundsen High School (and a later version at Bowen), one of the things we argued about was stabilizing on certain software packages. I argued for licensing Microsoft -- back then, Word and Excel, which I still have on version 1... floppies -- because they were likely to be around for a time. I'm sure there are many many many teachers who know more about "IT" than anyone we have here at Substance, but they are not going to prattle on about "Ocham's Razor" in this particular instance and then violate the most basic principle. Check it out.

April 26, 2010 at 10:05 PM

By: xian from CORE

Don't understand...

Why are people still suggesting that it's a technical glitch when CPS' own people are on record saying they blocked the site? What could be gained by lying and saying they blocked the site?

It's strange that people will believe what they want, appeal to authority and then ignore further evidence to the contrary.

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