Alarm bells rang on Tuesday as word leaked of a ban to accessing Snapchat, Instagram, and Netflix through school wifi at the TDSB (Canada’s largest school board).
We at SLN became curious. Why is this happening?
Think of a wifi network like a highway. Too many people on one makes a traffic jam. And according to the TDSB, the no-longer-supported platforms were taking up over a fifth of the board’s network activity. Apparently, internet use levels were so hard for the network to support that the wifi became slow to the point where it was almost impossible for teachers and staff to do the things they’re paid to, like prep report cards, take attendance, and register students.
So, TDSB cut the gravy. They dropped access to Snapchat, Netflix, and Instagram in the name of giving the network a chance to let teachers do their jobs. But the ban is only temporary, they say. Until the network is finished being upgraded and improved, in September.
Let’s break this down.
What are students doing about it?
“The students at [my school] seem very annoyed about it, some are saying that the TDSB is blocking our right to free speech,” Sahand Sabzparvar, a junior at W. L. Mackenzie C. I., told me. I don’t think this is a free speech issue, but the ban does pose a social class equity issue, which I’ll explain in a second.
Students across the TDSB are working around the restriction in a few ways. They’re downloading Netflix shows at home, to start. Here are the instructions, if you want to do this, too.
They’re using special apps to bypass wifi restrictions, like TunnelBear and Hotspot Shield. (Context: these are known as VPN apps.) Here’s how Matthew Levy, an Engineering student at the University of Waterloo, explained these apps to me:
The board never actually banned use of Snapchat, Instagram or Netflix. They just said “you can’t access them using our wifi.”
“You can block a student from going to Instagram, but you won’t block every website. And you can’t stop other websites from asking Instagram for content and sharing that content through their website. A VPN is a network that asks for, say, Instagram content and sends it to you under disguise as their own content.” Essentially, a VPN app tricks network restrictions by packaging banned content to look like something not included in the restriction.
Finally, students are falling back on their data plans. This is fine, because the board never actually banned use of Snapchat, Instagram or Netflix. They just said “you can’t access them using our wifi.”
What’s the (equity) issue?
Other than a phone storage limit, the Netflix ban is pretty much a non-issue. Download as many shows as you want at home.
That leaves access to Snapchat and Instagram–popular communications channels–open for conversation. The VPN apps have limitations. TunnelBear (a popular VPN app among students) caps students at 500MB of monthly usage, and Hotspot Shield is full of ads. Meaning, they don’t put students back to the same place they started in terms of access to social media. For students with powerful (read: expensive) data plans, TunnelBear’s data limit doesn’t matter. They can continue to use Snapchat without worrying much about being cut off because once TunnelBear’s limit runs out, there’s a data plan to fall back on.
What about the students whose families can’t afford to upgrade their data plan? The ban impacts them disproportionately more, and this is the heart of the equity issue I’m raising.
26% of students’ families earn over $100,000 a year while 28% earn less than $30,000 (approaching the poverty line).
One reason wifi (and a set of computers for student use, actually) exists in schools is to provide equal access to tools all students need to succeed, regardless of social class. Mind you, the TDSB is home to students with vastly different levels of financial resources: according to a 2014 report, 26% of students’ families earn over $100,000 a year while 28% earn less than $30,000 (approaching the poverty line). This isn’t a situation I’m making up.
Regardless of whether it’s right or proper, the reality is students use Snapchat and Instagram to build and maintain their social circles and relationships. Think what happens when, all of a sudden, that bottom 28% is cut off from the conversation because they can’t afford to upgrade their data plans to participate. Is it healthy for an overall student body’s sense of community when only higher-class students have access to the popular communications channels? You decide.
Why were only Snapchat, Instagram, and Netflix targeted?
Snapchat, Instagram, and Netflix took up 20% of the TDSB’s network capacity, the board claims. We don’t know what the breakdown of that proportion was. For example, were Snapchat, Instagram, and Netflix taking up equal amounts of data? Or was one taking up way more than the other two?
Here’s what we know: during peak times across North America (evening hours, mostly), in 2015, desktop Netflix access took up about 37% of internet usage. YouTube was in second place at 16%, and Snapchat and Instagram didn’t even make the list. On mobile devices, YouTube dominated, while Snapchat accounted for only 4% of usage. Instagram, even less.
Why were Snapchat and Instagram nixed with Netflix?
Take these stats with a grain of salt. They’re two years old, and a lot can change in that time (I just couldn’t find more recent stats, because they take the organizations who publish them some time to put together and actually publish). Also, I expect wifi use patterns in schools to be different than overall North American statistics. Think about it: internet use patterns across a school board, during the hours of 9 am and 4 pm, must logically be different from internet use at home between the hours of 7 pm and 11 pm.
Still, the stats prompt me to ask the question, why were Snapchat and Instagram nixed with Netflix? Even roughly adjusted for the grains of salt I brought up, they’re tiny in terms of internet use compared to Netflix. So, why are they being treated the same?
There could have been another reason the board wanted Instagram and Snapchat booted, and the wifi issue was a convenient excuse to do it. Distracted students? Cyber-bullying concerns? We can’t rule them out as an invisible contributing factor.
Is it really only temporary?
TDSB says the ban is an “interim measure” while they get a better, faster network up and running. A temporary thing. But, remember America’s Patriot Act? Yeah, it’s barely reported on anymore (I googled it). That Act was passed in 2001 to allow the government to spy on citizens in the name of national security (read: anti-terrorism). That, too, was meant to be temporary.
Aside: I also vividly remember how, when I turned 11, my mom said “I’m really busy this month, can you take over laundry duties for a bit?” To this day, laundry is my chore.
Sahand, our inside source from earlier in this article, has this to say about whether the ban is temporary or not: “there could be a chance that this is just a ruse so the TDSB makes it look like it’s a temporary ban but in actuality it’s a permanent one. But I think there would be a major backlash from the students if it is permanent”.
What was the real motivation behind the board’s Netflix, Snapchat and Instagram ban? Only they know for sure. What we know for a fact is this:
. The TDSB’s wifi is slow
. They say they’re working on fixing it
. They say the ban is only temporary
While we will never know exactly why the ban was really implemented, we can critically analyze what the TDSB does to make sure we aren’t just taking what information is fed to us (that’s just a healthy thing to do in general). And, we can download a VPN app to keep up with our friends on social media.
*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.