Northern Illinois University, a middling public school most famous for awarding a bachelor’s degree to Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, has enacted an acceptable use policy that temporarily blocks student access to websites deemed “illegal or unethical.”
The policy extends to Wikipedia, the free content Internet encyclopedia, according to the New York Observer’s Betabeat.
News of the censorship first bubbled up on Reddit when a user going by the name darkf initiated a discussion alleging that Northern Illinois administrators have adopted an Internet policy “that bans and censors political, social media, and ‘obscene’ content for residents, students and staff.”
The Reddit user, who says he is a Northern Illinois student, claimed that he discovered the new policy as he sat in his dorm room and attempted to use his personal computer to access the Wikipedia page for the Westboro Baptist Church.
He said he received an ominous filter message calling Wikipedia “a risk” that, “it is highly probable,” “would violate the Northern Illinois University Acceptable Use Policy.”
“This kind of policy comes out of the blue,” the Reddit user told Betabeat. “I feel that if someone doesn’t speak out about it at the start, it might be here to stay. I hope they can understand how restrictive it is to students.”
Under the policy enacted July 25, “obscene, defamatory” material on the web is outlawed. So is anything that “constitutes a threat.”
Most menacingly, Northern Illinois now prohibits “political activities” on the Internet. Such activities include “organizing or participating in any political meeting,” “distributing material” and “completing political surveys.”
Porn is also verboten.
In addition, social media including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and LinkedIn are forbidden if they fall outside the scope of “professional responsibilities.”
However, Reddit user darkf indicated that students can use social media on their computers. He also helpfully provided screenshots demonstrating that he could, in fact, access pornography.
Northern Illinois bureaucrats will enforce their new policy with “routine monitoring,” according to Betabeat.
On Thursday, The Huffington Post entered the fray to assure America that Northern Illinois is not banning students from accessing websites when it warns students that certain websites are banned. Instead, HuffPo explains, the school is just forbidding students from accessing sites — such as Wikipedia, if Reddit user darkf’s claims are correct — that contain “malicious code.”
“The system does not block the content so much. It’s to block the threats, the malicious code,” Northern Illinois spokesman Paul Palian told the Huff Post. “That’s what we’re trying to do with these firewalls in place.”
Palian went on to assert that the new policy protects the school’s Internet system “from sites that have shown high frequency from being malicious or unethical.”
And don’t worry you fret about privacy. “You just have to enter your NIU credentials first,” he told the Huff Post. “It’s a work in progress.”
Palian also claimed that the parts of the new policy about social media only apply to school employees. He suggested that perhaps Reddit user darkf is both a student and an employee.
“If you are a student employee, you are still an employee,” he told the website “That means you don’t use state resources for personal use.”
Presumably, then, any of thousands of financially needy students in campus work-study programs are subject to the broad Internet access ban.
Susan Kruth of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties group, has called the Northern Illinois acceptable use policy blatantly unconstitutional.
“While a corporation like Ford or General Electric might have valid reasons for limiting Internet access to some sites (for instance, to promote employee productivity), there’s a vast — and obvious — difference between private employees and public college students,” Kruth said, according to Reason. “The fact that the Reddit user who relayed his experience with the Internet filter was simply trying to access information about the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) paints a disturbing picture about the breadth of NIU’s censorship efforts.”