Northern Illinois University drew the ire of the interwebs down upon itself recently by blocking sites they deem “obscene, defamatory, or [that] constitutes a threat.” The issue was initially brought up by Reddit user darkf when he tried to access the Wikipedia page for Westboro Baptist Church. The attempt brought him a warning message that the site was illegal or unethical and further outlined the policy he was about to violate
It’s a small victory that Northern Illinois University recognizes WBB as unethical, but limiting access across the entire network to broad categories like this is at best clumsy and ham-fisted, and at worst utterly facist. As a writer I know that sometimes you have to search for things like “sex robot.” To do research on Nazism in the modern day one may have to visit sites full of hate speech. There are all kinds of legitimate academic reasons to visit sites that reference or contain obscene, defamatory or hateful speech. To ban Wikipedia articles that reference objectionable material completely denies the basic premises of academia.
Part of the college experience is to begin to move beyond the world we grew up in and begin to deal with things on our own and on a bigger scale. Throwing young adults seeking to expand their minds into a censored bubble is completely antithetical to the ideals of higher education. Cutting students off from the world and the resources that help them to understand it better is pathetic and damaging. I can’t see it doing anything but keeping young adults even longer in the poisonous mindset of high school.
Even more concerning is that it sounds like nobody is allowed to use the network for political activities of any kind when political activism in college is often the foundation for the politicians of the future. And despite venerable and voluminous library of politician jokes, we do need well educated, adept politicians. College campuses can’t be cut off from the rest of the world and fulfill their promises to educate young people.
The way the political section is worded makes it sound like it’s more focused on students or professors who would use University resources and networks to promote their own political campaigns, or use them to support another’s campaign. It sounds like it’s meant to be more akin to prohibitions against politicians improperly using franking privileges than aimed at squashing all political activity on campus. Whether or not that’s the intent isn’t entirely clear. It could certainly be used as a blanket policy to suppress almost any political activity on campus.
But never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity. NIU claims that the policy is focused on maintaining the security of the network.
“The system does not block the content so much, it’s to block the threats, the malicious code. That’s what we’re trying to do with these firewalls in place,” Palian told HuffPost. “So our policy protects us from sites that have shown high frequency from being malicious or unethical. You can still have the option to go through and access [these sites], you just have to enter your NIU credentials first. It’s a work in progress.”
In that story Palian specifically mentions that students might need access to pornographic content in a research context, despite that pornography is specifically mentioned in the “Acceptable Use” policy. He clearly isn’t telling the whole truth about their strategy when it comes to determining what should and should not be blocked, or he isn’t really aware of how the policy reads. Most of the truth is contained within a single phrase, “It’s a work in progress.” Wikipedia is not a domain known for unethical conduct, illegal activity or damaging code. Using a filtering system that can’t tell the difference between a Westboro Baptist support page and a Wikipedia article on them is poor execution whether or not you think the Westboro Baptists should be blocked or not.
Certainly someone making decisions for the NIU has some conservative ideas about what should be allowed on the network, but I’d be willing to bet that this is mostly a case of a lazily deployed filtering system and a broad policy to cover some asses in the IT department as much as anything else. If you don’t want employees accessing social media then you block those sites on computers in specific areas. Don’t want kids watching porn in the library? block it on those computers. Expanding those blocks to the entire campus network is just fucking lazy. Not putting a simple exemption on the Wikipedia domain is pure sloth.
Coming up with a nuanced filtering system that works across an entire college campus is a big undertaking. Those of us who’ve worked in offices likely all have stories about filtering systems that were either absurdly tight or laughably loose, and that’s a fairly limited scope compared to a college campus. Should NIU be prioritizing misguided ideas about network security above allowing their students access to information? No. But they’re just bad at their jobs, not malicious control freaks. Most likely anyway.