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Web Censorship on the University Campus? 503

Posted by Cliff
from the should-students-worry dept.
Censored Prof asks: "I teach at a private university in San Antonio, TX. Besides some horrendous bandwidth issues, we have lately been subjected to Lightspeed and/or Websense blocking. This means that suddenly, university students are unable to see content that the rest of the (free) world sees; and more importantly are often blocked from very legitimate information crucial to their area of study. Papers like Village Voice are blocked. Anatomy sites are blocked. Electronic Art sites are blocked. Anything with ".mp3" is blocked. Our CIO has assured us that this is not uncommon and that there are good reasons to do this on a university campus. It strikes me as odd that students must leave campus to learn, and smacks of censorship in horrible ways. So my question: Is this unique to our university? Who else at what other universities are subject to similar web-content blocking? Are we alone, or part of a disturbing trend?"
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Web Censorship on the University Campus?

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  • by mcmonkey (96054) on Thursday October 12, 2006 @02:57PM (#16411943) Homepage
    Nothing for you to see here. Please move along.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Ant P. (974313)
      I tried to read one of the articles on censorship in college today, and got blocked. Not sure what sets off that filter crap, but it stops a lot of people getting any real work done here.
  • by TubeSteak (669689) on Thursday October 12, 2006 @02:58PM (#16411955) Journal
    Even if your University is in the minority, it is part of a disturbing trend.

    Most of those filters are designed for corporate or under-18 environments.

    Universities have wildly different needs.
  • Key word (Score:4, Informative)

    by daveschroeder (516195) * on Thursday October 12, 2006 @02:58PM (#16411957)
    "Private" university. And I'm guessing a smaller school.

    But no, this isn't common at all, at least at public universities (and most larger private/research institutions). In residential housing, sometimes traffic shaping and bandwidth limits [wisc.edu] are used to try to curb/dissuade inappropriate usage (and even then, nothing is blocked, and services like iTunes Music Store are added to unlimited use categories)[1], but most universities, especially public research universities, see non-censorship of network traffic and protocols as a matter of academic freedom, and a critical one at that.

    Even during the heyday of Napster [wisc.edu], the University of Wisconsin - Madison, for example, made a critical decision, and decided not to censor or limit network traffic based on protocol, port, application, or tool. We viewed the increase in traffic as part of the "cost of doing business" as an academic institution, and viewed censorship of protocols or ports as a slippery slope that was an affront to academic interests.

    [1] Some people still might say that's a form of "censorship". I can assure you it's not. When no limits are in place, people use services that can use port 80 and/or tunnel traffic in SSH, and a very small number of users can saturate the network for everyone else. Packet/traffic shaping equipment cannot keep up with the number of flows, so a common practice at large schools with several thousand residents in university-owned housing is bandwidth limits. Anyone can get an exception for acceptable purposes. Remember, this applies ONLY to housing; residents are still expected to follow acceptable use policies for the network that make it accessible and usable by all. Further, these are separate judgments made by the housing divisions at most schools.
    • Give students in on-campus housing the same speed they would get in off-campus housing for the same price, with maybe a minumum speed, say, 1.5-down/384-up built into the rent. If your equipment permits it, don't count on-campus traffic towards that total.
      If someone wants to pay $30/month for 6-down/1-up or more for even higher bandwidth, they should have that option, assuming your equipment allows for it.

      After all, if they lived off-campus that's what they would have to do.
      • Yes, but the problem is that when you're living in a university-owned building and using a university network connection, you fall under the university's Appropriate Use Policy [wisc.edu] (Housing AUP [wisc.edu]).

        This only allows for academic usage of the connection (which can encompass a *wide* variety of things, no doubt), and only allows for de minimus personal usage. All on campus traffic is unlimited, and any academic off-campus use can be unlimited. Everything else can be used, too, but counts against a 5GB/week bandwidth
  • Shrug (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 12, 2006 @02:58PM (#16411961)
    It's a private university. They can do what they want. Try surfing Fark at Bob Jones University and see how well that goes over...
    • In that case I don't get why the government acknowledges the degree given out by that particular institution as valid. It is a private place doing whatever they want after all...
      • In that case I don't get why the government acknowledges the degree given out by that particular institution as valid. That might be because the US government doesn't decide if a degree given out by a particular institution is "valid".
        • Then based on what are they hiring?
          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by Kemanorel (127835)
            Degrees are accredited by independent organizations that set standards each program has to meet. Google "accreditation" and see what pops up. It is the accreditation that signifies a degree as valid.
    • Re:Shrug (Score:4, Insightful)

      by UbuntuDupe (970646) on Thursday October 12, 2006 @03:16PM (#16412257) Journal
      Well, what's different about this is it's not even accomplishing any particular goal. Is it keeping out "naughty" sites? Er, some yes, and some no. Is it keeping out newspaper sites? Er, some yes, some no. Is it keeping out bandwidth hogs? Er, kinda in the sense that it makes internet use a nightmare. But it prohibits an itty bitty mp3 clip of of the wumpasaurus's mating call for my zoology class (hypothetical, people!) just as much as a 14 Mb mp3 at PIRATEYOURMP3SHERE.COM. Plus, it seems to clip out vital parts of websites that *are* acceptable. Kinda like what happens when you do javascript block + ad-related url-block, except that you can't turn it off by changing settings on your software!

      So, it's more imcompetence than malice.
    • Re:Shrug (Score:5, Insightful)

      by AxelBoldt (1490) on Thursday October 12, 2006 @03:54PM (#16412805) Homepage
      It's a private university. They can do what they want.
      True and completely besides the point. The first question is "Should an institution dedicated to higher learning engage in censorship?" and the answer is "No"; the second question is "Do many institutions dedicated to higher learning engage in censorship?" and the answer is "No."
  • Narrow thinking (Score:5, Informative)

    by BWJones (18351) * on Thursday October 12, 2006 @02:58PM (#16411963) Homepage Journal
    Our CIO has assured us that this is not uncommon and that there are good reasons to do this on a university campus.

    I don't know if your CIO is full of it or not, but I suspect he is being less than forthcoming about things. Has he/she elaborated on just what "good reasons" there are to perform this degree of censorship in an institution supposedly devoted to learning? Who gets to be the arbiter of acceptable content? In many countries and even communities here in the US, people go to colleges and universities to be challenged intellectually and get away from censorship or limited thinking.

    I cannot give you a statistical breakdown of multiple universities, but having been to a couple and being a professor here at the University of Utah, I can give you some idea for how open and flexible our campus computer networks are. We do not, to my knowledge block any sites, there is no censorship, we are able to host websites from university servers or our own servers (including blogs [utah.edu]) using university bandwidth so long as we are not hosting illegal content or using the sites for commercial benefit.

    It is a very open policy here that fosters student and faculty growth and communication with the rest of the world. Granted, there will always be some problems and some abusers of the system, but I would say the benefits outweigh the costs/risks associated with Internet access.

    Finally, it should be noted that as content is developed and encoded for digital distribution, common (open) formats are going to become more common. College/university courses on mp3, mp4 and Quicktime (proprietary) are becoming more common. Documents, dissertations and journals are in pdf formats, so what's their solution to this?

    • Re:Narrow thinking (Score:4, Insightful)

      by daveschroeder (516195) * on Thursday October 12, 2006 @03:04PM (#16412071)
      I should note that I agree with the sentiments in your post. At the University of Wisconsin, we also do not censor or block any traffic, and only use traffic shaping and bandwidth limits in the residence halls, because it was deemed a necessity in terms of the way the housing division here manages bandwidth and usage; still, nothing is blocked.

      I would like to say that QuickTime, while proprietary, is often a reasonable tool to use to generate and view content that utilizes open international standards (such as MPEG-4 and H.264). Part of that thinking went into this IP video delivery project [wisc.edu] for us (more reasoning in a recent presentation here [wisc.edu]), and ultimately, QuickTime allowed us to do things with open standards and protocols that Windows Media, Real, and VideoFurnace simply couldn't, and at a cost that was (and still is) much, much less than dedicated industrial video encoders and other equipment.
      • Re:Narrow thinking (Score:4, Insightful)

        by BWJones (18351) * on Thursday October 12, 2006 @03:08PM (#16412135) Homepage Journal
        Regarding Quicktime. I fully agree with you and that is why I noted it as a media tool. I just felt it was appropriate to note that it was proprietary for full disclosure.

        As an aside, some of the new imaging code coming out in 10.5 is also really going to enhance the ability to extend Quicktime in some new and exciting ways, not just for video or sound either. :-)

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by TopShelf (92521)
        I wonder if this CIO came from a corporate background, and is unfamiliar with collegiate ways. Long ago when I used to work in a university environment, we had an IT manager come in from the outside world, and he wanted to start maintaining web traffic logs by employee, snoop email, etc. A buddy of mine who was a network administrator underneath him told me about the meeting they had with the university's personnel department to review the new policy.

        He said the personnel director basically went white whe
    • ...so long as we are not hosting illegal content

      But isn't everything interesting on the internet considered illegal in Utah? ;-)

      Seriously, though, if overall bandwidth and equal access are an issue, I suspect duration and content based throttling would solve most of the problems of widespread abuse. By targeting the high-bandwidth content and placing bandwidth caps (I'm thinking 24 hour window rate throttling for the top 5% of users, not max client rates on an intermittent basis), you could limit the total
  • ... that in a facility full of teachers and information, students would still have to make network connections to outside sources, in order to learn. ... that in an environment in which huge amounts of learning occurred for over hundreds of years before the Internet was even invented, it only takes one generation for people to become convinced that learning is impossible without the Internet.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by CorSci81 (1007499)
      You seem to be conflating two issues. No one argues that "learning" becomes impossible without the internet, the real issue is one of content. It's a question of what you're learning. While some areas of research and learning are perfectly suited to learning from books, others clearly are not. Universities are not static entities, they try to stay current and relevant. This means areas of study have appeared that no one imagined even a half century ago, and sometimes unfiltered access to the outside wo
    • by Software (179033)
      By "it strikes me as odd that students must leave campus to learn", I think the submitter meant "to learn in the most efficient way". Nobody thinks learning is impossible without the Internet, but in some fields it can be very difficult to keep up on the latest research without the Internet. For example, http://arxiv.org/ [arxiv.org] has changed the way research in physics is shared among institutions. OK, so the university in question isn't blocking arxiv.org, but in general there is going to be additional information
    • by RexRhino (769423)
      Learning hasn't been make impossible... Just more difficult. Why make things more difficult for its own sake?
    • by radtea (464814)
      ...that it would strike you as odd that ease of access to information is a matter of some concern at a university.

      But wait, that isn't what strikes you as odd...it strikes you as odd that students need the 'Net in order to learn.

      What strikes me is odd is that what strikes you as odd is completely unrelated to anything in TFA.

      But wait, this is /.!

      Ok, the irrelevance of your comment, and the insightful mod it got, no longer strikes me as odd at all.
    • by kabocox (199019)
      ... that in a facility full of teachers and information, students would still have to make network connections to outside sources, in order to learn. ... that in an environment in which huge amounts of learning occurred for over hundreds of years before the Internet was even invented, it only takes one generation for people to become convinced that learning is impossible without the Internet.

      Think of it not as "the internet" and more as extremely easy access to reference materials. Long ago, you only had ac
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by StikyPad (445176)
      ...that anyone would presume that any single institution could provide all of the information and references on any given topic. Aside from such thinking being the the characteristic trait of pompousness, it's also dangerously fallacious. We're not talking about elementary school here, where no amount of additional information will help someone learn 2+2. Tertiary education is all about moving beyond the basics and exploring the limits, and those limits are constantly being expanded by different people i
  • by abscissa (136568)
    Do they do this because of costs? Liability issues? Something else?

    I can understand throttling bittorent but this is taking it a bit far.

    Although I just got my degree the other day and they "Confirmed" it on this shoddy carbon copy of a dot matrix printout... and some teaching assistant just "checked" a box and initialed it. After all that work? It was sort of an insult. Universities are not the places they used to be... /rant
    • Although I just got my degree the other day and they "Confirmed" it on this shoddy carbon copy of a dot matrix printout...

      That's what I got when I graduated from Stanford in 1985. I finished at the end of a quarter, but not at the end of the academic year. So I got a printout on a dot matrix printer. It was a real letdown. Eventually, many months later, the fancy diploma showed up in the mail.

    • by DeadChobi (740395)
      They did that so that they could have a copy of the actual printed output that you recieved, and the reason it was dot matrix is because that's the only thing that will apply pressure so that the carbon paper can copy.

      Err... not to be a pedant or anything.
  • by frequnkn (632597) on Thursday October 12, 2006 @03:03PM (#16412043) Homepage Journal
    I serve in the IT management team at a small private university, and we don NOT filter or censor ANY traffic based on content. This is commonly discussed at various meetings regarding technology and higher ed (just google around on the http://educause.edu/ [educause.edu] website). Packet shaping based on protocol our IP address are one thing, but blacklisting and content blocking is blatant censorship. Our faculty would have us hanged if we implemented such a policy.
  • I know what school! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    OH! OH! I grew up in San Antonio. Lemme guess! Is this private school St. Mary's University, the school with a crucifix in every hallway? Gee, do you think they'd really censor your internet access? Gee....
  • It's hard to look at what traffic is coming through and not block some good stuff when all you're trying to do is keep bandwidth hogs at bay. I don't see why they can't just have strong user ID's, and go after people individually who seem to use a ton of bandwidth; after all, the university's computers could be a monitored network, and there's nothing that says they have to give you free, unfiltered wi-fi on your own personal laptop.
  • I work in ITS at TSU and, other than some QoS, I have encountered no censorship/blocking.

    If students are so worried (and have admin access to the PC's they use), they could use JAP, or any number of other software(s) that redirect at least http requests through proxies to get around such restrictions.

    I don't agree with the message stupidcensorship puts out (aiming it primarially at jr/high schools), but for college settings I see nothing wrong with it, for the stated purposes.

    It's when such services are abu
  • Do you have people ripping pages out of library books to prevent students seeing "bad" information?
  • by joe 155 (937621)
    I don't really know what a private university is, but where I go to university (in the UK) I don't think they could even get away with doing this because of the students... I'm a little amazed that they've not been campaigning to change this.

    I don't think that this is "normal" though, because as you rightly mention, there is so much to learn on the internet and I think that you achieve this goal best by allowing the free flow of information. Hell, you're screwed if your studying medicine at that uni. Y
    • Private University = completely self funded through tuition, research grants, trusts, donations, etc. Harvard is a private university.

      Public University = any university that has some or most of their funding through tax dollars from the state/federal level. Most 'state' schools (like Ohio State, Florida State, Oregon State, etc) are public universities.

      So which is better? No clear answer to that as each type has their advantages and disadvantages. Private schools are often views as 'better' because of

  • Just keep on making noise! Enrollment will drop. Then maybe your CIO will get the hint.
  • by TheMCP (121589) on Thursday October 12, 2006 @03:12PM (#16412209) Homepage
    I was in charge of writing a policy for web usage and censorship at a small private university. The policy that was decided on was to charge each student a $20 annual internet usage fee, in exchange for which we provided uncensored internet access to them while on campus. We chose to be their "ISP" so we could wash our hands of responsibility for whatever they would choose to do with it.

    It was our opinion that by choosing to actually censor internet access, a college could become responsible for the actions of its students on the net, because it shows that they are monitoring the students' behavior and choosing to intervene. Failure to "correctly" intervene could make a school liable. Establishing a policy that the school is an ISP and provides uncensored access to students who are responsible for their own actions could prevent liability for the school.
  • by Skevin (16048) * on Thursday October 12, 2006 @03:14PM (#16412233) Journal
    > subjected to Lightspeed and/or Websense blocking.

    My last job used to censor Lightspeed University too. I can't possibly imagine why
  • Not odd (Score:5, Interesting)

    by AnotherBlackHat (265897) on Thursday October 12, 2006 @03:14PM (#16412237) Homepage
    It strikes me as odd that students must leave campus to learn,


    Not at all, that's the way it's been for thousands of years.

    "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." -- Mark Twain

  • My impression is that computing resources at universities have always sucked. When I was in a computer graphics course at a school that was very reputable for Comp Sci, back in 1997, the SGI machines available to us in the lab were nearly unusable. I don't completely remember the deal, but they were slow-ass X terminals, and there weren't many of them available. My friends and I were more productive programming at home, on our Windows machines using Voodoo graphics cards, and porting our work back to the sc
  • No pr0n for you! Graduate, hippy.
  • No known attempts to filter due to content. Probably infeasible given the size of the network.
  • A large state school. We do no filtering based on content. What we do to manage bandwidth (other than buy enough):

    1) Rate limit the dorms. Each dorm has a cap, 5-10mbits I think, for the whole dorm. That mean that we can know for certain that the bandwidth used by residents won't exceed a certain amount.

    2) Reflexive access lists on all dorms. That's a permit out, deny in kind of thing like you'd get behind a NAT. Means that while P2P apps work, they aren't the demons that they can be (fast computers with no
  • Simple solution is to just set up a ssh tunnel...
    • by fruey (563914)
      To where?

      You can SSH tunnel anywhere, but the server on the other end has to port forward or proxy for you, which means you need control over it.

      I see this reply a lot, but if you only have one machine and no friends on the outside of the network, it's not *that* simple.
  • I work on one of the UC campuses, and there is no such censorship here. The tradition of the university, and of the UC system in general, makes me believe that if a CIO dared suggest similar censorship here, the faculty and students would cry that this is against academic freedom, and the CIO would be sent packing in very short order. But this is just what I believe, since to this day, no CIO has attempted such censorship (he would be stopped before implementation).

    We do, however, keep track of net

  • It strikes me as odd that students must leave campus to learn, and smacks of censorship in horrible ways.

    It's only censorship if 1) the students are prevented from leaving campus to search for information and 2) you as a teacher are prevented from bringing in outside material for your classes. Otherwise you and your students are free to do what we've been doing for hundereds of years: bringing in outside knowledge and incorporating it into our education.

    I can't speak for every university, but the p

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by geekoid (135745)
      " 1) the students are prevented from leaving campus to search for information ..."

      Safety, weather, amd transportation are ways someone is prevented from leaving campus.

      "2) you as a teacher are prevented from bringing in outside material for your classes. "

      "I can't speak for every university, but the private university I attended never had a hard copy version of the Village Voice or other such material on campus (my college years were pre-internet). If I wanted such material, I had to go off-campus to get it
  • There is no content blocking even of things like Bittorrent and limewire. Daytime bandwidth is limited, nighttime is not metered or limited in any way, I can get downloads up to 10mbps or even higher.

    Your university is doing a disservice to its students by blocking.
  • by paladinwannabe2 (889776) on Thursday October 12, 2006 @03:39PM (#16412627)
    My school did not block any websites that I was aware of. What it did do is throttle bandwidth to students who used to much of it (if you downloaded too many gigs of stuff in a single day, you would get your bandwidth throttled down to Dial-up speeds for a day or two, and then it would reset). The bandwidth levels were high enough that you could play video games online all day without reaching your limit- unless you were downloading several movies a day, you weren't going to be affected.
  • Having recently graduated from college, and having friends who have attended a multitude of other colleges, I have noticed that content blocking is very rare. The only blocking I have heard of with some schools, was to block file sharing programs. Not quite sure if they just blocked the sites to download them, or blocked the protocols, or what, but this was all roughly four years ago when Kazaa and the like were hitting peak usage. Schools were getting sued and campus networks were swamped with traffic.
  • Art Class (Score:5, Funny)

    by Dekortage (697532) on Thursday October 12, 2006 @03:58PM (#16412877) Homepage

    As an art major in college roughly ten years ago, we ran into some problems when the I.T. department installed Novell's Border Manager software to filter naughty HTTP traffic. Whenever you went to look at, say, Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights [ibiblio.org], you would instead be presented with an obtuse Border Manager error page stating that you were restricted from viewing that web page.

    Now, art history classes typically involve sitting in a dark lecture room and viewing hundreds of slides of artwork while a professor (or TA) talks about them in excrutiating detail. As you might expect, a lot of this artwork involved nudity in some way. So the obvious answer to this situation was to take a screen shot of the Border Manager error page, turn it into some slides, and slip them into the slide reel when the professor wasn't looking: "The next image [click] is Botticelli's famous Birth of Venus [artchive.com], which... what the hell?"

    I suggest you try this yourself if your art history professor still uses slides. It will be funny at least once.

  • by omega9 (138280) on Thursday October 12, 2006 @04:30PM (#16413311) Homepage
    university students are unable to see content that the rest of the (free) world sees
    That's what filters do. That means they're working. The important piece that molds the context of this comment is how "content" is defined.

    and more importantly are often blocked from very legitimate information crucial to their area of study
    In almost every case I've been involved in, it broke down to exactly how crucial the information was. In my realm, if I think there's any educational value there whatsoever, I'll unblock it. I'm more concerned about proper student education then sensless content blocking. You place may be different.

    Papers like Village Voice are blocked. Anatomy sites are blocked. Electronic Art sites are blocked. Anything with ".mp3" is blocked.
    Village Voice and anatomy sites may be being blocked because of overzealous regex filters. I can't imagine why electronic art (how ambigious is that?!) sites are blocked unless you're refering to Electronic Arts [ea.com], in which case I might not see your case. As far as MP3s, I, too, block any MP3 downloads at my campuses, unless requested on an individual basis for a good reason. I have yet to find a good reason why unfettered MP3 downloading aides education. Do you have one?

    It strikes me as odd that students must leave campus to learn, and smacks of censorship in horrible ways.
    Now it's obvious you're biased, trolling, or just whining. Not to mention you just labeled yourself and your fellow faculty incapable of teaching without unfiltered internet access.

    Are we alone, or part of a disturbing trend?
    I don't know. Do you enjoy beating your wife?

    Look, at my campuses I use a web proxy (Squid) for several reasons, and one of them is to block certain types of content. Most of the campuses have two multilinked T1s, which means right around 3Mb/s. I don't have enough bandwidth to support the world. First, the obvious stuff, like porn, goes into the blocklists. Then I do a little advert filtering. Anonymous web proxies are a no-no, as well as sites dedicated to any sort of large, streaming content. YouTube, Google Video, di.fm, and video portions of ESPN, CNN, and other are blocked, to name a few.

    Oh, and Myspace, Friendster, and most of the other social sites are blocked. I challenge you to show me what educational value they have and then show me them being used that way .

    And, yes, through a combo of mime-types and regex I block mp3, avi, wmv, mov, and just about every other audio and video type out there. You know what happens when I don't? People spend their time on apple.com waitching movie trailers or something equally unproductive. We got tired of wondering why our VPN or online applications were slow, only to discover people abusing the network. It is not my students right to download the latest game trailer for Whatever's Coming Out Next Month XII (omg!).

    I'm betting you haven't:
    • Thought, at length, about how the internet can both help and hurt your students, both during and away from class.
    • Recorded specific examples of sites or resources you can't reach and why they would make a justifiable, positive impact on your class.
    • Met with your local IT staff to discuss your specific examples and discover what can be done about providing access to them.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by mgblst (80109)
      You are treating everyone like children, in that they need to come and ask you for some specific access. Who are you to decide what is ok? Just because you can restrict access, does not mean that you should - these are important decisions, too important for them to be made by a Systems Admin - sorry, you are abusing your power. Why should I have to prove the merit of something to you?? Do you not see this as ridiculous?

      The best thing students can do is make a lot of noise. Write to your local papers, your l
  • Ridiculous (Score:4, Interesting)

    by porcupine8 (816071) on Thursday October 12, 2006 @05:15PM (#16413973) Journal
    I've had computer access at five universities in the past two years, and none do anything like this. Each in a different state, three private, two public, all in the top 50 (USN&WR), all but one in the top 20. Maybe it's common, but not at good schools. Which schools does your CIO really want to emulate?

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