November 04, 2005

Internet censorship

There's an article in the Times Higher from Oct 28th about how some countries restrict internet access in ways which affect HE institutions among others. The articles mentions, for example, that in Belarus, university staff are required to monitor students' use of web sites. Zimbabwean academics have been affected (though not specifically targeted for) internet and email restrictions. Chinese academics have to be careful about what they say and what they look at on the web. And so on.

I'm sure all the examples given are true, but the phrase in the article which caught my eye was this one:-

Academics in most countries take the web for granted. The internet's vast array of information is a natural habitat they are free to explore.

So the assumption underlying the article is that in the UK and other "civilised" countries, academics enjoy complete freedom, and this contrasts sharply with more oppressive regimes. But is this premise really true? Here's a page about web filtering at the University of Aberdeen for example. Here's a similar page from Glasgow Caledonian university. The majority view at UK universities, I think, is still that blocking access to some web sites is undesirable, but it's by no means the inconceivable undertaking that this article appears to suggest; many UK universities, including this one, have at various times considered the possibility, but come down on the side of academic freedom or technical unworkability. Never say never.


- 7 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. But at Aberdeen, you can fill in a form and get it countersigned by your head of department to allow you to have full access – it seems to be more about liability rather than control, no?

    04 Nov 2005, 16:28

  2. John Dale

    Well, maybe. But what sort of liability can be disclaimed in this way? I don't see any liability that the university has if I want to look at dubious content that could be removed by a form countersigned by an HoD.

    04 Nov 2005, 16:39

  3. I guess the legal responsibilities for universities are analogous to those of any commercial ISP, which the only legal precedent so far suggests is that if they are presented with evidence of wrongdoing they must do something about it. I don't see what extra liability a University would have.

    I think, though, that there's a difference between limiting access for taught-course students and anyone engaged in research. For taught students, the internet is a tool to help with their guided learning, directed by academic staff. For staff (and research students), it's an integral part of academic freedom that they must be able to read anything they want, publish what they want and set what coursework they feel appropriate for the taught students.

    08 Nov 2005, 10:04

  4. John Dale

    Interesting. So do you think it would be acceptable to limit internet access for taught students? Or just less unacceptable?

    08 Nov 2005, 11:41

  5. I suppose "less unacceptable" covers it – I think that academic freedom for those doing teaching and research is essential, but for taught-course students just highly desirable.

    08 Nov 2005, 13:19

  6. Ioannis

    This is an interesting debate you are opening here, John.

    I think university students should be allowed free unlimited and unrestricted Internet access. The university is supposed to be all about making people able to think for themselves, so blocking anything (even illegal things) should not be an option. Any adult is responsible for their doings, not their Internet host, employer or parents.

    That said, I am glad Warwick had this kind of policy when I was a student (I graduated a year and a bit ago). Manchester was a bit different.

    However, I was reading something in the Warwick Boar about the implication of a campus in Singapore on Warwick's freedom of speech. Isn't a university morally responsible for making its students open minded and educated people (outside their specific course subject)?

    PS: If you reply, cc my e-mail please :-)

    ioannis

    09 Nov 2005, 17:06

  7. John Dale

    The university is supposed to be all about making people able to think for themselves, so blocking anything (even illegal things) should not be an option.

    Why does the latter follow from the former? If we postulate that teaching people to think for themselves is something that could be done in a room with a blackboard over the course of fifty seminars over thirty weeks (say), then it can be done regardless of any internet access policy. Twentry years ago there wasn't an internet (to speak of) and universities were still in the business of teaching people to think for themselves, so it seems to me to be ipso facto true that this is something that can be done with or without access to the internet.

    That doesn't mean that I think internet access should be restricted for taught students, but I don't think your statement quite nails why it would be a bad idea.

    And sadly I can't email you because I don't know your email address. Sorry.

    09 Nov 2005, 22:31


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