Network: The things Janet won't tell you

Is this techno-driven censorship our vision of academic cyberspace?
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The Independent Culture
The art of censorship is sometimes practised by the most unlikely authorities. Recently, a student at a prestigious British university put up a home page on Janet (Joint Academic Network) promoting the Kurdish Freedom Movement. This didn't go down very well with his Turkish adversaries, who immediately threatened the university with an e-mail bomb campaign, hack attack and other things that could easily bring the university network down.

Under pressure to protect the network's reliability, the university's technical supervisors decided to censor the Web site and pulled the plug. Although this was very much a pragmatic decision taken in the context of the need to service the majority of users, it is nevertheless intriguing that the mechanics of this new era of censorship are based on technical, rather than moral, reasons.

In this case, the individual responsible for the network reliability took a decision that appeared to be optimal for serving other Janet users. Since the resources needed to fight the threat were expensive and not easily available (Janet is run on a very thin shoestring), there was simply no alternative but to stop the Web site being available on the Internet to a wider audience, despite the fact that Kurdish Freedom Movement is perfectly legal in the UK.

In the end, the student resorted to printing old-fashioned newsletters and photocopying them for physical distribution. Since his Turkish opponents didn't think about threatening the life of the photocopier located in the student union, the leaflets found their way safely into students' hands. Looking at the copies made me feel nostalgic for the times when, many years ago, I smuggled similar home-made Solidarity leaflets in Poland. It is disappointing that in the Wired Age such primitive methods are still in use due to a lack of resources.

The censoring of the Kurdish site is yet another example of the "sanitising" of the Internet. Only a few years ago, students could freely use newsgroups, mailing lists, publish Web sites on progressive and radical ideas, while practising their debating skills and learning the art of electronic democracy. Debates ranged from supporting the Kurds, to condemning the Serbs, raising awareness of Aids or planning the demise of the Tories. All topics were acceptable, and occasional bad or aggressive language didn't seem to hurt anybody's feelings. Today, though, the "acceptable use policy" for Janet forbids not only swear words but even masking (***ing) or, to be really picky, rotating (jwlbobo) bad language.

This is probably appropriate for nursery Web sites, but are we really saying that students in their daily debates must be limited to the Queen's English? That is a minor matter, but another policy guideline that forbids posting anything that may cause "anxiety" is certainly going too far in Janet's attempt at muzzling students. You can't have a good debate without high adrenaline, and if we want graduates who have fully developed critical thinking and debating skills, then there isn't any better way to practice them than on the Net. They will get plenty of muzzling on corporate Web sites once they get a job in the real world.

The real issue of Janet is one of funding. Students could get a lot more out of it if our universities had budgets for decent security, high-class firewalls and enough staff to deal with threats from hackers or obscure e-terrorists. A debate needs to take place on what role the Internet should play at universities. One wonders if the best we can afford for our students is merely a medium for archiving old academic papers. No debating, no heated exchanges, no controversial Web sites. It may be not a conspiracy theory but simply a survival plan by Janet's technical support. However, the question must be asked if this techno-driven censorship is our vision of academic cyberspace? The answer can only be arrived at by developing a consensus on the potential limits to free speech and students' abilities to address controversial issues. Perhaps it's time to bite the bullet and admit that the world of the written word is not black and white. Technical support people being left to make moral or ethical decisions can only limit the use of the Internet as a tool for electronic democracy. Let's take the example of Yahoo, and its decision to publish the Starr report despite the fact that it wasn't exactly "family reading material".

History is not always politically correct, and if we don't have the stomach to take the raw reality, then perhaps we deserve to have the underdeveloped graduates we most surely will get.