University Bans Social Media, Political Content and Wikipedia Pages On Dorm WiFi

My understanding is that there was once a theory that America’s public universities were havens of free speech, political thought, and a center for the exchange of ideas. I must admit that this seems foreign to me. I’ve always experienced universities primarily as a group-think center mostly centered around college athletics. That said, if universities want to still claim to be at the forefront of idea and thought, they probably shouldn’t be censoring the hell out of what their students can access on the internet.

Yet, as btr1701 writes in about, that’s exactly what Northern Illinois University appears to be doing.

Northern Illinois University enacted an Acceptable Use Policy that goes further than banning torrents, also denying students access to social media sites and other content the university considers “unethical” or “obscene.” A discussion on the ban was brought to Reddit by user darkf who discovered the new policy while trying to access the Wikipedia page for the Westboro Baptist Church from his personal computer in his dorm room. The student received a filter message categorizing the page as “illegal or unethical.” It seems possible to continue to the webpage, but the message warns that all violations will be reviewed.

While sites that only potentially violate the policy, such as the Wikipedia page for stupidest church in America, are still accessible after the warning, other sites that NIU has deemed offensive, defamatory, or threatening remain. These, oddly, include pornography sites, for some reason. It also includes social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIN, the latter of which seems like an especially odd choice since it’s primarily a job networking site and I’d think that would be the kind of thing a university would want their students to be doing. Granted, this usage policy applies to staff as well as students, but that’s the entire problem with a catchall filtering system like this: you block too much good along with the “bad.”

But where this really goes off the rails is NIU’s apparent attempt to stifle political discussion on their campus.

Perhaps one of the most controversial of the terms is the restriction on political activities such as surveying, polling, material distribution, vote solicitation and organization or participation in meetings, rallies and demonstrations, among other activities…Isn’t it obvious that an institute of higher learning should be the last place to put a huge block in the information pathway?

It’s not just obvious, it seems like the antithesis of what a public university ought to be doing. Forget the social media and pornography sites for a moment. Turning the filters up to the point when Wikipedia pages are blocked is insane. That site is a go to resource for, well, everyone, but probably especially for students. And the ban on political activism and traffic suggests NIU is turning a blind-eye to the important role that universities have always played in political thought and activism.

Shame on NIU for trying to strangle the internet access their students rely on as they learn and become adults.

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Companies: niu, northern illinois university

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Comments on “University Bans Social Media, Political Content and Wikipedia Pages On Dorm WiFi”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I suggest searching for “linkedin spam” and reading what you find. You might also want to review relevant traffic on NANOG, mailop, funsec, sdlu and other cluefully-populated mailing lists of particular interest.

My own spamtraps show LinkedIn activity going back to the middle of the last decade and continuing to the present day. They not only hit valid accounts but they target addresses which have never existed AND they continue to hit addresses which haven’t existed in years AND they continue to target distribution lists AND…well, it just gets worse from there.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Funny, but I don’t recall that right in the current legal canon, nor do I think that it would be a defensible stance to take in this case. They’re monitoring and policing their own network, not preventing people from learning.

Is it shitty and stupid? Of course. Is it illegal? No way.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Care to provide rational for your assertion, or should I just take your word for it?

In the United States, most public universities are state universities founded and operated by state government entities

I was unaware that a State government entity was considered a “private institution”.

Aaron (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

It is remarkable how wrong you are. Public schools are not allowed to restrict the first amendment activities of their students, except for very narrowly tailored time and place restrictions. Many schools have been sued and lost over less than this curtailment of students’ right to petition their government and to peaceably assemble.

Anonymous Coward says:

Someone did some upgrades over the summer while students are out installed new systems and decided “Hey we should block x because it we get viruses and stuff from there… hey we can also block Y and put warnings up for a bunch of other sites”. Now that students are back and bumping into the security warnings there will be a retreat and things will settle back.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Yeah, dude, but this is on the intarwebs!

And terrorists!
And hax0rs!
And think of the children — attending university!

Their young precious minds must be protected from encountering any controversial viewpoints. (Or things the university does not like.)

So it’s all okay. Like chill. This is a post 9/11 world and it’s okay to censor things that might be dangerous.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Why should they get first amendment rights in college if they didn’t have them in high school?

Followup: why should they get first amendment rights in adult life if they didn’t have them in college?

That line of thinking can also be extended in the other direction prior to high school, but that is left as an exercise for the reader.

Because terrorists!

Eldakka (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 HTTPS

You don’t have to install the cert on the computers.

The firewall appliance that can be put in-between the student’s computer and the internet can still do the man-in-the-middle attack, all it means is the student will get a warning in their browser that the cert isn’t properly signed with an option to proceed anyway.

This is what happens on my corporate network when I install a 3rd party browser that doesn’t use the windows keystore (i.e. anything not IE) that hasn’t had the appliance’s cert put in it’s keystore.

I can still continue to the site, and the appliance still decrypts the stream, but I get a warning about it.

Austin (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 HTTPS

Yes and no.

Assuming that NIU doesn’t have their own Cert, valid and signed (which, since I assume they offer at least 1 online class and accept online payments for said class, is doubtful) then this is correct.

However, all NIU has to do is re-sign the page with their own cert, then do some DNS masking, and the user will get no warnings, as long as their own cert is valid for the masked domain. I’ve seen it done at a K-12 school here in Alabama. Since all the URLs are rewritten as being on, and the cert for that is valid, even visitor’s browsers get no warning.

Of course, then it’s blatantly obvious that the site is being filtered because instead of the address bar says, but if you’re not paying attention or aren’t tech savy, the transition is totally seamless. Especially on mobile devices that hide the URL bar after a few seconds (basically every browser on Android and many on iOS) then you probably wouldn’t notice.

But yeah, without a DNS masking, you’d have to accept their cert, or at least accept that it applies to *.com (and net and org) rather than a specific domain.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: HTTPS

Correct me if I am mistaken.

Doesn’t HTTPS actually conceal the hostname of the request?

It just doesn’t conceal the IP address, nor the fact that a moment earlier you did a DNS request for a hostname that happened to be for that IP address.

And, you may be able to reverse DNS the hostname from the IP address after the fact.

Charles says:


As a graduate of NIU some 5 years ago – I can just say that their techs were just as bad then as now.
We used to have to install some cisco access client to every computer, and the client was only available on Windows… lol

As must be typical for public college’s the techs have more of a political leaning. All they care about is avoiding blame.

While its weird to see NIU in the news on TechDirt I am not at all surprised

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Clear messages

“You can learn anything you want as long as it is what we want you to learn”

seems a pretty clear message

Reminds me of word usage regarding a child’s education:
ignorance concerns what parents / teachers want kids to know.
innocence concerns what parents / teachers don’t want kids to know.

American society is becoming an ironic parody of human civilization.

DNY says:

Two out of three ain't bad

Actually as a university professor, I think discouraging students from using social media — generally a way of ignoring one’s studies — and wikipedia — the lazy student’s approach to scholarly research — by refusing to allow access to them using university hardware might not be such a bad idea.

On the other hand, for a public university to try to suppress political activism is highly dubious on both Constitutional and academic grounds.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Two out of three ain't bad

Blocking access to such sites because students might get lazy is crazy talk. First, if their research is substandard, you address that by giving them a lower grade. Second, these are adults. If they want to throw away their tuition by actively avoiding learning, that’s their business.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Two out of three ain't bad

How is censorship “not such a bad idea”?

Pointing out to the students how and why something may not be in their best interest is good, but at the same time not allowing them their own investigation is treating them as though they were children. This will not work. Treating college students as though they are adults, even if they do not act like it, will typically render better results than not.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Two out of three ain't bad

I can agree with farcebook and beeper but Wikipedia? I hate Jimbo as much as the next man but it is a site that was useful for my learndings back then.

sarcasm away : got my masters in 2007 and yeah, sometimes wikipedia was very helpful at completing our textbooks, organic chemistry books of that level tend to be pretty old

TestPilotDummy says:

I hate to say it, but...

Who owns the WiFi? That’s who decides what is used on it.

I got no current love for colleges and their financial skulduggery, on that alone they ought be boycotted.

Student Loans cluster “F.”
Who are these stupid people even going to a college at this point? It’s time people take the “Think and Grow Rich” attitude. You don’t need to spend all that time in college only to come out and not even know the first thing about how to build a telemarketing network for example. Instead, you should be getting an education which drives your Dream, and makes it so you CAN get your idea converted into reality.

You might be a mechanic who can mount solar panels like a band of illegal aliens can slap a roof up in 15 minutes, but if you are STARTING a SOLAR business, you MIGHT need to GET some AC/DC, Digital Logic, RX/TX, Test Equipment skills, Soldering skills, IEEE skills/book(I just buy the current book), etc.

Not much of that NEEDS to be LEARNED in a COLLEGE PHYSICAL.
I went through it before we had calculators. Well the bowmar was out back then…. ya know with the “Konstant Key”

Going to a college in light of all the crap–I say you need a pretty compelling reason to have to break boycott to gain skills needed to HOLD your business together.

What difference does a degree matter if your still a fucking idiot who can’t think independently?

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: That's a very feudal attitude.

Who owns the WiFi? That’s who decides what is used on it.

That’s a very laissez-faire position. If you apply the notion to any other commodity (land, library, country club, commercial service, restaurant, whatever) then we see situations in which has been decided to be in the public interest do regulate how its use is governed. Part of the problem is that not all registrants to the campus are necessarily informed of this restriction and may not be prepared to adjust for a closed internet on the fly.

I’m suspect that this censorship policy will create a perverse incentive to use and explore the very parts of the internet that the school’s administration hopes to block off.

Anonymous Coward says:

No problem there. If Mommy and Daddy do not like that censorship, they can set up the family computer at home to act as a VPN relay, then their son or daughter, while at school, can make a secure VPN connection to the family computer at home, and the university will not be able to monitor what they are up to. All they will see is an encrypted connection going back to the family computer at home.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If Mommy and Daddy do not like that censorship, they can set up the family computer at home to act as a VPN relay, then their son or daughter, while at school, can make a secure VPN connection to the family computer at home, and the university will not be able to monitor what they are up to.

Just because there are ways around the censorship doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

How are they going to know what you are up to when connecting to the family computer back home.

I didn’t say they would. I said that just because there are ways around the censorship (ie your plan would be effective) doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. It’s a problem not because the censorship is insurmountable, it’s a problem because it’s censorship.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Campus WIFI should be offered as "Limited"

If they’re going to have limited wifi, then it should be advertised as limited wifi, or it should be specified in the college prep disclosures that the internet service provided on campus is limited, and that students wanting full internet access will want to bring their own (say, via a telecom service, or via a local ISP)

I suspect they don’t make such a disclosure, or at least don’t make it obvious.

But the inference of their wording (“other content the university considers unethical or obscene“) means that their intent is to block access by their students to this content as opposed to prevent such content from passing through school networks. The intent is parallel to unlawful restraint, to inappropriately restrict the legal actions of another person.

Students should be advised of the dangers of lingering too much on social networks. They should be advised as to the dangers of referencing Wikipedia (or any encyclopedia, since Wikipedia is not especially inaccurate) when doing research for academic works. Students might even be advised to the ethics or obscenity (?) in question when going to sites that would raise such issues (and be allowed to challenge these opinions). But the way we learn things is by exploring why. If a campus official believes a given site is obscene, why is this not, in an institution of learning, instead being used as a debatable question?

It sounds more like a codgery Luddite administrator lording his opinion over everyone else on campus because he as the power to do so, not because there has been some critical consideration of the consequences.

May the students of NIU all master computer hacking during their studies. May the NIU network become a wretched hive of scum and villainy as a consequence of this policy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Or there could be a reasonable explanation

I’ve discovered as a busy tech person that when my company got a new web filter, the default setting was pretty darn strict.

It is entirely possible that the filter was upgraded and that QA concerns that it is working as advertised must be completed before requested changes of sites to be unblocked can be processed.

Any filter I have worked with has a setting to allow users to pass-through a block, but will log the IP address of the computer and the site visited.

Did anyone put in a tech request to unblock Wikipedia? Did someone respond to that request?

Having said that, it this really is some policy decision to block social media sites, then by all means, break out the pitchforks and torches.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Or there could be a reasonable explanation

“I’ve discovered as a busy tech person that when my company got a new web filter, the default setting was pretty darn strict”

There is no reasonable excuse for an IT department to accept the default blocklist without review prior to deployment. If this has happened, someone wasn’t doing their job right.

“It is entirely possible that the filter was upgraded and that QA concerns that it is working as advertised must be completed before requested changes of sites to be unblocked can be processed”

Only if the college is deploying the upgrade prior to testing, in which case the IT department is failing at its job.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Or there could be a reasonable explanation

Only if the college is deploying the upgrade prior to testing, in which case the IT department is failing at its job.

Or they’re like the IT department at my alma mater, who would install bug-ridden, untested, or entirely non-functional software simply because some faction which was doing well in the staff politics at the time had been convinced by a flashy marketing presentation and insisted it be installed right now, whatever it would cost, no excuses.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Or there could be a reasonable explanation

True, but the failure was externally-imposed, and if the board tells you to do something stupid after you tell them it is stupid (and why), the failure is theirs not yours.

For one particularly bad package, it was pushed by an over-powerful administrative office against the hostility or disinterest of everyone else, and the conversation went approximately:

Admin: We’ve decided that XYZ will be the new standard, to be introduced next semester and used for all courses a year after that.

IT: That software is incompatible with the package in use in some schools already, it is horribly buggy, and doesn’t fit existing administrative practices and policies.

Faculties: We’re not changing all our rules and policies for your convenience, sort it out yourselves.

IT: We’ll have to monkey-patch great big chunks of XYZ, that will take at least a year and cost $lots.

Admin: Just install it and the lecturers can stick to the parts that work for them, and you can fix it while it is running.

IT: That will be even slower and more expensive.

Admin: What do we care? It is your budget not ours, just make it work.

Board: They’re right, do it the way they want.

[A few years later, just as they’ve finally got it working…]

XYZ’s vendors: There’s a new and incompatible version out, with all new exploits, bugs and misfeatures, and we’re dropping support for the old version.

Admin: Guess what, we’ve decided the new standard will be XYZ v n+1! You just need to get that working now.

IT: headdesk

Fortunately, that office had been acting like the worst seagull consultants everywhere else, and eventually all the other factions in the staff political landscape manage to gang up on them and get them disbanded.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Or there could be a reasonable explanation

I really like that reasonable explanation.

Though given that the university cited blocking cites that were “unethical” or “obscene”. Those are the wrong reasons for an academic institution to be blocking sites.

Contrast “people using the library computers for social networking are crowding out the people wanting to use them for research.” While I still don’t like it, it seems more reasonable to me.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Or there could be a reasonable explanation

“Obscenity” could be an issue in computers visible from anywhere other than the user’s seat, because typical sex discrimination law includes rules saying that displaying anything obscene or sexually charged creates a hostile work environment, and employers are responsible for preventing their staff being exposed to it.

Of course, in the US that raises issues for government employees dealing with the public, because the public’s First Amendment free speech rights allow sexually-charged speech.

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