Concussion: Returning the Student Athlete Back to Life, with Dr. Gerard Gioia

Tonight at the Phillips Academy faculty meeting, we are talking with Dr. Gerard Gioia of the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC. The purpose of this discussion is to ensure that we are adopting best practices to protect our students from traumatic brain injury (TBI), or concussions, and that we have sound policies and practices in place to help ensure that students get treatment and care for injuries they do sustain.  Dr. Gioia is a very clear and effective speaker with access to a great deal of relevant data and practical guidance for schools.

We are talking about the concussions that are most commonly seen in residential academic settings.  Research shows that about half of all concussions in these environments occur in the context of sports (hockey, lacrosse, football, and soccer are among the most common) and about half in everyday life.  After a student has a concussion, we, like many schools, have adopted accommodations for them on a case-by-case basis.

According to Dr. Gioia, the definition of traumatic brain injury, or concussion for short, is an injury to the brain due to a blow to the head or body that jerks the head forward and backward.  The damage is a “software” problem: that the brain’s electrochemical function changes as a result of the trauma.  Put a slightly different way by Dr. Gioia, it’s less of a “hardware” problem than a “software” problem.  Kids experience physical, psychological, cognitive, and socially-related symptoms that can last for hours, days, and much longer.  Concussions happen much more than we realize, among both kids and adults.  Injuries are one-off; there’s no one-size-fits-all in terms of the way to treat it and how quickly to bring kids back into their ordinary pattern of life.

The primary effect of TBI is to damage the working memory.  Students can experience slower reaction times, have trouble paying attention, or struggle with concentration.  Students can also experience greater irritability as a result of the injury.  Recovery time tends to be between 1 day to 140 days.  Our understanding and treatment modalities need to take into account this range and the variation within it.

Dr. Gioia suggests that best practices include ensuring that kids experience no additional forces to the head during recovery, by keeping them out of sports and other activities that might lead to re-injury.  Running, jumping, jogging the head; working too hard on homework; and emotional stress all can harm the brain further during the recovery period.  Students who have experienced a concussion especially need to rest their brain and get good sleep.  We need to help facilitate their physiological recovery.  The cognitive demands of school can slow recovery or exacerbate the negative impact of the injury.  (Studies show that math, it seems, is the hardest thing for students to do, by far, after a concussion.)  Dr. Gioia recommends a moderated approach to bringing kids back into their regular activities after a concussion.  The rest right after the injury is most important, with only a gradual increase in activity thereafter.  Dr. Gioia suggests setting up a team on campus that works with students after concussions, which is the approach that we’re taking at Phillips Academy.

Dr. Gioia ends with a positive message: these kids who get concussions will get better.

Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereoptypes Affect Us

Tonight in the faculty meeting at Phillips Academy, we will discuss Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi.  (Steele is a distinguished social psychologist; former provost of Columbia; now dean of education at Stanford.)  It’s an exceptionally good book on many levels, assigned to the full faculty by the Access to Success working group at Andover.  The social science he presents about stereotype threat is deep and revealing; the personal narratives are compelling; and the ideas for concrete action at schools are constructive.

Steele’s book should be required reading for anyone who works in a school.  More broadly, anyone who cares about the present and future of American democracy should read it.  The topics that he takes up — the risks associated with stereotype threat and implications for education, politics, and identity — belong at the top of the list of important issues that we face as a country.

It seems fitting to be having this conversation tonight, on the 50th anniversary of James Meredith’s registration at Ole Miss.  Yesterday’s lead story in the New York Times (by Adam Liptak) also highlighted the important new challenge to affirmative action that the United States Supreme Court will hear this term.  (From the story: “On Oct. 10, the court will hear Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 11-345, a major challenge to affirmative action in higher education.”) It’s unfortunate that we are still struggling at the level of admissions of diverse communities; the discussion should be much further along than it is today.

Instead of arguing about the rules for admissions and whether our campuses should be truly diverse in the first place, the conversation should be about what schools should do once we have highly diverse communities. This issue is crucial to the future of Andover and our educational program.  It’s not enough to admit students from a broad range of backgrounds; it’s essential that we are intentional and effective about how we enable all students to succeed and enjoy their time at schools, including but certainly not limited to Andover.

(Book page for Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi)

Mimi Ito Comes to Andover

This morning, Prof. Mizuko (Mimi) Ito is at Phillips Academy, Andover, to lead us, as a faculty, in a community conversation to start off the year.  Mimi is setting forth the core data and arguments behind Connected Learning, which is our professional development theme at Andover for the year.  She has us all on an Etherpad page hosted by Mozilla (a “mopad”) as a back-channel, which is leading to lots of discussion about whether we can pay attention to her lecture as well as our own chat session (not to mention Twitter stream and live-blogs, like this one that I’m writing contemporaneously).

The Connected Learning model is built around encouraging kids to tie together their learning in three areas: their Interests (diverse, self-directed), their Peer Culture (the social, peer-driven), their Achievements (academic and otherwise), in ways that are both online and offline.  Mimi also talked some about the desired outcomes for Connected Learning, the 21st century skills and deeper learning.  She stressed that it is very early days in terms of how digital media and education are evolving, and that assessment and evaluation are major areas for future focus and collaboration.  For more on the theory of Connected Learning, see a seminal blog post from Mimi (which includes a seven-minute embedded video) and many other posts from the DMLCentral community.

Mimi stresses, and I completely agree, that a technology-centered approach to education isn’t ever going to work.  There are many experiences that we can draw on to show that this is true: TV and education is just one example.  Our approach needs to be grounded in clear and compelling pedagogical goals, figuring out where technology can help and where it cannot.  Our use of technology can help us to transform teaching and learning in fabulous ways, but the technology will not do all that on its own.

Ways to follow along: our hashtag today is #connectedandover.  Mimi Ito can be followed @mizuko.  And Andover’s Twitter handle is @PhillipsAcademy.  And for other schools: I highly recommend a professional development day focused on Connected Learning — it’s both provocative and a lot of fun.

Meanwhile, Andover students are trickling in all around us, with many more to arrive in the days to come.  Some are back for sports, others for community service, others who are international students coming from around the world.  It’s our goal to connect the learning happening in these many domains, in the service of our students’ overall education and growth.

New post on a new blog

With thanks to my friends at Phillips Academy and the Berkman Center, I’ve got a new look to my old blog. I’m excited to write my first post to try it out, on the day when all the Phillips Academy faculty return from the summer (welcome back, colleagues!) for our Convocation ceremony together tonight in the Cochran Chapel.

And tomorrow, we welcome Mimi Ito as our first professional development speaker and discussion leader for the year, on the topic of Connected Learning.  I am deeply grateful to Mimi for agreeing to travel across the country to help us kick off the new school year.

New Heads of School Institute (Part II)

We are half-way through the Institute for New Heads of Schools.  (This is the second of two posts on this topic; the earlier post is here.)  I’ve been looking forward to the first session this morning, led by James P. Honan, senior lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  I’ve been an admirer of Jim’s for a long time; he is a great teacher and leader, including a lot of service on school boards and trusted advisor to heads of school (including BB&N and Dana Hall).

* Stewardship and Sustainability.  Jim’s session is on “Strategic Financial Management: Stewardship and Sustainability.”  Unlike the other sessions at the institute, Jim teaches his using the case method, and he’s a fine case teacher.  Every one of us as new heads has been asked by our boards, I suspect, to focus on “sustainability” and to take a hard look at the financial model of our respective schools.  Jim frames the session with a good, hard question: “what do you want your financial legacy to be once you leave as the CEO of the school?”  You want to have managed with strong controls and with sound compliance; to have aligned the resources well with the strategic priorities; and to be able to show that your management of financial resources led to the school being better by the end of your time there.  Most schools have their money in roughly four buckets: 1) general, 2) plant, 3) endowment, and 4) grants.  Most for-profits, Jim notes, have just one such bucket; the nature of the accounting in schools is different in this important way.  There are three types of money: 3) permanently restricted (e.g., many endowed funds); 2) temporarily restricted (e.g., grants and other “use-it-or-lose-it money”); and 3) unrestricted (within reason; the board can still constrain its usage somewhat, if needed).  Jim emphasized the importance for heads of institutions to be the “translator” of the financial issues related to the school for the community at large.  He cites to Herzlinger’s four questions that we (as leaders and trustees) should ask about the financials regularly: 1) are the organization’s goals consistent with its resources?; 2) are the sources and uses of resources matched?; 3) is there intergenerational equity?; and, 4) are present resources sustainable?  “High performing organizations aren’t just lucky,” Jim tells us.  Another good line: in education, “you can’t cut your way to prosperity.”

* Creating a Culture of Philanthropy.  The job of a head of any academic institution is, in part, about development, institutional advancement, fundraising — whatever we call it.  Our sessions on philanthropy, (led by Denise Martin of the Center for Early Education with Reveta Bowers), are focused on the people involved: staff in the development office, the alumni and other potential/actual donors, the faculty (who often ought to be more involved; I always liked talking with donors as a faculty member; I’m told it is rare that faculty are really involved in development in schools), the students (around whom everything needs to revolve).  The role of the head of school seems to vary a lot in terms of what role we play in fundraising.  I’ve always enjoyed this part of my job, especially as executive director of the Berkman Center, since I just thought about it as talking with smart people about work that I’m excited about.  I realize it can be hard work, but it’s rewarding and think it will be a great way to channel passion about the mission of the school.

* Trusting Relationship with the School’s Staff.  The executive director, Dallas Joseph, and board chair, Jeff Shields, of the National Business Officers Association (NBOA) came to talk about the importance of the business officer’s role in the success of a school.  I spoke at NBOA’s annual symposium a few years ago (about Born Digital), and I was highly impressed by the organization and its members.  So I’ve been looking forward to this session.  The speakers emphasized the importance of a trusting relationship between the head of school and the CFO/business officer.  That seems, of course, quite right.  It occurs to me that much of the messaging from this camp is about building trusting relationships with staff (and faculty and other constituencies) across the school, starting from the very beginning.  Simple and obvious, but worth focusing on.

* A First Year as Head of School.  Vince Watchorn, who just recently completed his first year as head of Providence Country Day, took us through his own experiences and teed up what one can expect in the first year.  The most important thing (and I agree with this, ex ante), he says, is to spend the first year devoted to observing, to listening, and to learning from what one takes in.  He talked also about helping to lead a conversation, to inspire other people to talk in public about big, important topics that may not have been discussed recently at the school.   He also talked very helpfully about the balance between the internal and external demands of the job.  It is crucial to balance the two, but achieving that balance is always a challenge — in the first year and throughout one’s time as head of school.  In Vince’s case, he toggled between an internal focus and an external focus during different periods during the year as a way to manage both demands.  Everything is connected, as in a complex system, Vince argues (which I also agree with; see Interop, which Urs Gasser and I just published.)  One nice nugget: in response to a question from my friend Zachary Lehman, new head at the Hill School (who is going to be completely amazing), Vince said that “the best new traditions are old traditions that have been forgotten.”

New Heads of School Institute (Part I)

Last week was my first as head of school at Phillips Academy, Andover.  This week, I’m off campus with about 70 (yes, to my surprise: seven-zero) newly minted heads of independent schools for an institute (I am thinking about it as “camp” for new heads) hosted by the NAIS.  It’s very well-organized and well-staffed — and is a useful time to reflect on this new role we’re all taking on.

Over the course of the week, I’ll update this blog entry with the high-level points that seem to gain the traction among members of the group and which seem highly relevant to me.  The things I’ll pull out from the conversations and post here may not be the most important to everyone at the institute, but rather the topics that are most useful (selfishly) to me as I think about leading Andover.  I will try to limit myself to no more than one topic per session, lest the blog post get too long; they’re not in order of importance, necessarily, but in order of the sessions at the institute.  And I’m live-blogging as sessions go, so please excuse typos and shorthand.  Other participants would no doubt come up with quite a different list.

*  Assessment.  No small question: How do we define, measure, and achieve success as a school?  In the opening session, led by NAIS president Pat Bassett (blog, @Pat Bassett on Twitter), part of the discussion centered around ways of assessing the success of a school.  There seems to be little disagreement with the core premise: it should be child-centered.  The primary definition of success for a school should be how well the kids are prepared to succeed, in a broad range of ways (academically but also ethically, socially/emotionally, artistically, athletically, and so forth), after they graduate.  Also, it seems straightforward that assessment should be “formative” rather than “normative.”  How do we assess these varying kinds of “success” of, and for, our kids?  (I am a believer in Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory and framework, FWIW.)  For instance, some people think we should go beyond grades and test scores and college admissions (as important as those things are, in their way), and instead should look to alternate modes of assessment.  One suggestion we discussed: should we be creating a digital portfolio for our kids from pre-school through the end of their time in school?  A related topic: a good portfolio would be far from standardized, but rather student-driven — which would cut against ease of analysis across large numbers of applications.  This general topic of assessment is one of enormous interest to me; there’s an important national (and, in fact, global) conversation on this topic that we should all be a part of.  I’ll be staying in touch, for instance, with the work of my former colleagues at HILT, who are doing great things in this area in higher ed.  I’m also puzzling about how success can relate also to kids enjoying and benefitting from their time at Andover while they are there — not just in the sense of “preparing” for what comes afterwards.

*  Data can be our friend.  There’s a growing movement in the education field, including in secondary education, toward using data more effectively than we’ve done in the past.  (This second point, on data, is related to the first, with respect to assessment, but it is also more capacious.)  Some schools report that there’s a basic commitment to using data to drive a certain level of accountability.  That’s crucial, as a matter of basic management and governance.  More broadly we ought to strive for greater sophistication with respect to how we analyze data (it’s not just about the collection and collation of data, but about what we do with it, what kinds of decisions we make); how we think about both qualitative and quantitative sources of data; and how we incorporate and understand data from other fields (say, the increasingly important and revealing science of learning).

*  Diversity and Inclusiveness.  Every school has its own story, and (one hopes) its own pathway, toward becoming genuinely diverse and inclusive.  These issues are essential for every school to acknowledge, understand, and ultimately get right.  Diversity and inclusiveness relate directly to access — access to success at the school, in education more extensively, and in professional and personal life.  The NAIS board has put in place a set of new “principles of good practice for equity and justice.”  The presenter, Gene Batiste, VP at NAIS (see a brief speech of his here), notes that these new principles serve to support the diversity practitioners in schools by putting the responsibility of diversity and inclusiveness work in the ambit of heads of school and trustees.  As a side note, related to this and other points: each of the institute’s teachers is emphasizing the importance of modeling on the part of the head of school, which is true in the context of inclusiveness as well.  For Andover, as a need-blind school, this work is especially crucial.  In my mind, the work around access, equity, and justice are directly about making good on the promise of the school’s commitment to need-blind admissions.  I am extremely eager to work on these issues with the very strong team at Andover.

* Governance.  I’m especially interested in issues of governance and how decisions are made at schools.  That might have something to do with being a lawyer by training.  The faculty member leading this session, Reveta Bowers, the head of school at the Center for Early Education at West Hollywood, CA, is completely amazing and inspiring.  She’s been a head of school for 42 years, and that’s the least amazing thing about her.  Reveta led a captivating discussion about the governance of schools, focused initially on the relationship between the head of school and the Board of Trustees.  There’s a wide range of board sizes, cultures, and issues in the room of 70 of us, but many commonalities, too, across these differences. The key shared topic is the distinction between governance (the role of the Board) and management (the role of the head of school and her/his team) — and what that means.  Newly minted heads of school spent the session at the front of our seats throughout her presentation.

* Messaging and Social Media.  If you ever have the chance to take a workshop by Andy Watson, (very experienced) head of school at Albuquerque Academy, do it!  (Find him @atwatson2 on Twitter.)  He’s a great teacher — of writing and otherwise.  We also got a bit into social media strategy by the end of the session.  Most schools seem to agree: no friending of current students on Facebook, but Twitter following back and forth is fine.  Seems about right to me, and is consistent with my past practice at HLS.

Book Experiment #2: Interop

Urs Gasser and I began a research project in 2005 to study Interoperability (Interop, for short). Our gameplan was to answer a straightforward question: do higher levels of interoperability lead to increased innovation? A few years and many case studies later, we had found a general correlation between more interop and more innovation in the context of information technologies.

But we also had discovered a few order things that we had not expected. We found that we were seeing interop stories everywhere we looked. Interop seemed to matter outside of the IT context, too. We also found that people in a wide range of fields had also been thinking about interop: those who care about economics, computer science, systems theory, complexity theory, and so forth. We decided that there might be a book project that could build from the base of our research into those original case studies.

As we began to write up the longer-form argument, we agreed also to experiment with the format of the book, as we had done in the context of Born Digital, Intellectual Property Strategy, and other book projects. The premise here, with Interop, (now, in fact, published as a book, by Basic Books) is to present the book along with a rich set of case studies, available freely online, that have served as the raw data for the analysis and theory we present in the book version. Our early case studies on digital music, digital identity, and mash ups in the social web were the first three. Over the next few years, we worked with a strong team of interns, as always spread across two research centers (the Berkman Center at Harvard in the US and the FIR ate the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland), to produce several more. These new case studies, also published freely online, range more broadly.

Over the next few weeks, we will roll out pointers, from our blogs, to these online case studies about interop. They can be read as standalone pieces or, better yet, as a companion to the Interop book itself. We look forward to your feedback.

Harvard Initiative on Learning and Teaching: Kick-Off

Today is the kick-off for the brand-new Harvard Initiative on Learning and Teaching (HILT).  This is an extraordinary day at Harvard, part symposium and part working session to get HILT underway in earnest.  The background: President Drew Faust and two of the university’s most loyal friends, Rita and Gustave Hauser, dreamed up a major new university-wide initiative to focus on the science and practice of learning and teaching.  The Hausers gave $40 million to make the initiative’s launch possible.

The symposium opens with a welcome from President Faust and Erin Driver-Linn, the director of HILT, who describe the ideas behind HILT and its early activities, including a new grant program for novel learning and teaching projects.  The first keynote session is on the science of learning.  The speakers are extraordinary: the moderator is Mahzarin Banaji (Harvard professor of psychology with a deep interest in learning), and the presenters are Carl Wieman (a prof in the past, and now in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and a Nobel Prize winner), Roddy Roediger (one of the giants of understanding learning and measuring learning), and Steve Pinker (Harvard College Professor in psychology and best-selling author, of The Language Instinct and many other wonderful books).  The presenters have been saying much too much to blog here effectively, so I’ll just go with one insight I took away from each speaker’s remarks:

- Banaji: many of our broadly-held myths about learning and teaching are wrong.  Before we lurch ahead with innovative teaching activities, we need to “unlearn” our mistaken assumptions and ground new efforts in the increasingly helpful science of learning.

- Wieman: experimental modes of teaching in science, even by less experienced teachers, are demonstrably more effective at teaching material to undergraduates than the classic lecture format, even when taught by a more senior professor with positive student evaluations;

- Roediger: testing helps with learning.  It’s much better to have students write, present, and take tests than to have them read and re-read material.  Performance (measured, say, as recall a few days later) is greatly improved based on the amount of testing (practicing retrieval of material) done previously.  This dynamic is known as the retrieval practice effect.  (Also: news alert for students: cramming works!  It is possible to improve recall over short periods by intense studying right before an exam.  But that won’t mean you can retrieve the information later; you won’t, unless you’ve been repeatedly tested.)

- Pinker: we know that students may not remember the particular substance that we teach them in universities, but we do expect that they will learn certain analytical skills.  We also hope they might have learned to write.  As wonderful as The Elements of Style is, it should not be the basis for teaching writing today, Pinker argues.  It is a charming book, but it is hard to come away with much useful advice (other than “omit needless words,” which Pinker agrees is highly worthy).  Grammar is in fact cool, Pinker says, involving brain-work.  We should teach writing as “convert[...] a network of ideas into a linear string of words,” which can mean sometimes selecting the passive voice instead of the active, for instance.  “It’s hard to know what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.”  This is the primary contributor both to bad writing and bad teaching.

(I am moderating the second session, soon to begin.)

Book Experiment #1: Intellectual Property Strategy as an iPad App (or, reply to Cody Brown)

With big thanks to MIT Press and a terrific group of colleagues, I’m delighted to report that the iPad app version of my new book, Intellectual Property Strategy, is now approved and available in the App Store.  (To find it, click here or search on “Intellectual Property Strategy” within the App Store on your iPad.)

The book is now available in multiple formats, several of which are conventional and one of which is experimental.  First, Intellectual Property Strategy is available as an ordinary, printed text which can be read without a computing device or electricity.  I would guess that this traditional form of the book may well be the primary way that most readers will interact with it.  The printed book is a wonderful technology, which still works extremely well for most people in most instances.  Second, the book can be read in its Kindle edition, which is little more — at this stage — than a digital form of the printed book.  (As an aside: I’ve been having a great time reading on the Kindle app on my iPad and then sharing little phrases on Twitter, Facebook, and Amazon.com.  These social features are a lot of fun — and represent the best Kindle development to date, in my view.)  Third, on the MIT Press web page for the book, a reader can find a few chapters freely available plus additional resources, which can be accessed for free.  These additional resources take the form of a series of in-depth case studies and videos of Intellectual Property experts, who comment on issues that I address in the book.  There is nothing all that experimental about these first three versions of the book.

The iPad app is the experimental form.   When I was about half-way through the book-writing process (with help from my great editor Marguerite Avery and library colleague June Casey), 21-year-old Cody Brown published a post in TechCrunch.  “Dear Authors,” Cody began, by way of the title, “your next book should be an app, not an iBook.”  I’d had a similar thought: what if we thought about this book as an application, rather than a traditional book.  What could be different?  Around this same time, I also bought NONOBJECT, another iPad app published by MIT Press, and it got me thinking about the possibilities.

Well, a fair amount is different.  In the iPad app version, a reader can use a series of cool navigation features that Aaron Zinman, the creative app developer who built it, dreamed up and coded into the app.  The book has many more links than a first-generation iBook/eBook.  The links take you to three types of places: 1) within the book itself, to the glossary and back, for instance; 2) with the extended-play version of the book, such as the case studies, which don’t appear in the printed book; and 3) out to the open web, where I link out to web sites and other resources.  If a reader follows a link out to the open web, then they are free to keep going, much as a web surfer would.  I hope they’d return to my primary text, but even if they don’t, this is a risk worth running, in my view.

What’s most “different” about the iPad app version of the book is that it has embedded in it a series of videos.  I interviewed a group of scholars who know a great deal about IP — much more than me, in the aggregate, and individually, too — and recorded the interviews on video.  With the help of colleagues, I’ve included snippets of these videos into the text of the book.  That way, a reader can hear from scholars other than me about the issues I’m taking up in the text as they are reading through it.  These video snippets can also lead the reader to the longer forms of the interviews, as long as 30 minutes, if they’d like.

Back to Cody Brown’s TechCrunch piece.  This iPad app takes the book form from A -> C, not A -> M, much less A -> Z.  There’s much more that one could do, with non-linear pathways through the text, the gamelike qualities that Cody suggests, the ability to edit the primary text.  These are still possible, left on the table for another experiment.  I look forward to working on some of these next-stage experiments in future projects.

A special note to libraries, and especially those interested in digital preservation: this iPad app version of the book leads to a curious question about preservation.  Libraries are great at preserving the physical forms of books.  Libraries are beginning to get smart about preserving simple digital formats — flat html files, for instance, and audio and video files.  But an iPad app?  In its integrated form, the iPad app is a tricky thing to preserve, I’d guess.  If Cody Brown’s challenge (and other similar thinking) leads to more experimentation, our preservation activities will have to get creative very quickly or we will lose the record of these early efforts.  Puts me in mind of the challenge to librarians posed by Nicholson Baker in his controversial book, Doublefold, along similar lines — only more than a decade ago.  How might we, as libraries, partner with Apple, for instance, to ensure that there’s a preservation process for these books?  Or with Internet Archive, which has done such an amazing job with the open web itself?

Also: I call this post “Book Experiment #1,” not because others haven’t experimented already in much more profound ways, but only because I’ve planned out two more posts to come — Book Experiments #2 and #3, to come shortly on this blog.

SOPA and our 2010 Circumvention Study

Daniel Castro of The Information Technology  & Innovation Fund recently published a paper supporting the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) currently being debated in congress.  In that report, he claims that research performed by us supports the domain name system (DNS) filtering mechanisms mandated by SOPA.  This claim is a distortion of our work.  We disagree with the use of our study to make the point that DNS-based Internet filtering works and that we should therefore use it as a means of stopping websites from distributing copyrighted content.  The data we collected answer a completely different set of questions in a completely different context.

Among other provisions that seek to control the sharing of copyrighted material on the Internet, SOPA, if enacted, would call upon the U.S. government to require that Internet service providers remove from their DNS servers the names of any sites that either infringe copyright directly or merely “facilitate” copyright infringement.  So, for example, the government could require that ISPs remove the name “twitter.com” from their DNS servers if twitter.com was not being sufficiently aggressive in preventing its users from tweeting information about places to download copyrighted materials.  This practice is known as DNS filtering.  DNS filtering is one of the most common modes of Internet-based censorship.  As we and our collaborators in the OpenNet Initiative have shown over the past decade, practices of this sort are used extensively in autocratic countries, including China and Iran, to prevent access to a range of sites offensive to the governments of those countries.

Opponents of SOPA have argued that the DNS filtering, even though it will have a number of harmful effects on the technical and political structure of the Internet, will not be effective in preventing users from accessing the blocked sites.  Mr. Castro cites our research as evidence that SOPA’s mandate to filter DNS will be effective.  He quotes our finding that at most 3% of users in certain countries that substantially filter the Internet use circumvention tools and asserts that “presumably the desire for access to essential political, historical, and cultural information is at least equal to, if not significantly stronger than, the desire to watch a movie without paying for it. Yet only a small fraction of Internet users employ circumvention tools to access blocked information, in part because many users simply lack the skills or desire to find, learn and use these tools.”

In our report, we looked at three sets of censorship circumvention tools: complex, client-based tools like Tor; paid VPNs; and web proxies.  We estimated usage of those three classes of tools. We used reports from the client tool developers, a survey to gather usage data from VPN operators and used data from Google Analytics to estimate usage of web proxy tools. Counting all three classes of tools, we estimated as many as 19 million users a month of circumvention tools. Given the large number of users in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other states where filtering is endemic, this represents a fairly small percentage of internet users in those countries; 19 million people represents about 3% of the users in countries where internet filtering is pervasive.  We actually believe that 3% figure is high, as some of the tools we study are used by users in open societies to evade corporate or university firewalls, not just to evade government censorship.

We stand behind the findings in our study (with reservations that we detail in the paper), but we disagree with the way that Mr. Castro applies our findings to the SOPA debate.  His presumption that people will work as hard or harder to access political content than they do to access entertainment content deeply misunderstands how and why most people use the internet.  Far more users in open societies use the Internet for entertainment than for political purposes; it is unreasonable to assume different behaviors in closed societies. Our research offers the depressing conclusion that comparatively few users are seeking blocked political information and suggests that the governments most successful in blocking political content ensure that entertainment and social media content is widely available online precisely because users get much more upset about blocking the ability watch movies than they do about blocking specific pieces of political content.

Rather than comparing usage of circumvention tools in closed societies to predict the activities of a given userbase, Mr. Castro would do better to consider the massive userbase of tools like bit torrent clients, which would make for a far cleaner analogy to the problem at hand.  Likewise, the long line of very popular peer-to-peer sharing tools that have been incrementally designed to circumvent the technical and political measures used to prevent sharing copyrighted materials are a stronger analogy than our study of users in authoritarian regimes seeking to access political content.

Second, our research has consistently shown that those who really wish to evade Internet filters can do so with relatively little effort.  The problem is that these activities can be very dangerous in certain regimes.  Even though our research shows that relatively few people in autocratic countries use circumvention tools, this does not mean that circumvention tools are not crucial to the dissident communities in those countries.  19 million people is not large in relation to the population of the Internet, but it is still a lot of people absolutely who have freer access to the Internet through the tools.  We personally know many people in autocratic countries for whom these tools provide a crucial (though not perfect) layer of security for their activist work.  Those people would be at much greater risk than they already are without access to the tools, but in addition to mandating DNS filtering, SOPA would make many circumvention tools illegal.  The single biggest funder of circumvention tools has been and remains the U.S. government, precisely because of the role the tools play in online activism.  It would be highly counter-productive for the U.S. government to both fund and outlaw the same set of tools.

Finally, our decade-long study of Internet filtering and circumvention has documented the many problems associated with Internet filtering, not its overall effectiveness.  DNS filtering is by necessity either overbroad or underbroad; it either blocks too much or too little.  Content on the Internet changes its place and nature rapidly, and DNS filtering is ineffective when it comes to keeping up with it.  Worse, especially from a First Amendment perspective, DNS filtering ends up blocking access to enormous amounts of perfectly lawful information.  We strongly resist the claim that our research, and that of our collaborators, makes the case in favor of DNS-based Internet filtering.

Links:

Mr. Castro’s report may be found here:

http://www.itif.org/publications/pipasopa-responding-critics-and-finding-path-forward

with the reference to our work on p. 8.

The study that is being misused by Mr. Castro is here:

http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/publications/2010/Circumvention_Tool_Usage.

The  findings of our decade-long studies are documented in three books, published MIT Press and available freely online in their entirety at:

http://access.opennet.net/

- Rob Faris, John Palfrey, Hal Roberts, Jill York, and Ethan Zuckerman