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A university in Germany is using Cisco's Umbrella to filter network access. It affects most areas on the campus used by scientists and students.

The filtering goes beyond what is required by law — Germany has some strict censorship laws — and includes Cisco Umbrella categories such as «hate speech», «adult», etc. which include legal websites. These are, among others, 4chan.org, gab.com, or gab.ai. Websites seems to be added to the categories, as websites that worked a week ago are suddenly blocked. Trying to access a blocked website means you end up at the website of the IT department with the Umbrella category (e.g., «hate speech») and your IP address in the URL. You have the option to contact the IT department and ask for the website to be made available.

I have a strong opinion on the topic, so I am interested in arguments both pro and contra the filtering of legal websites on a university campus.

Note: The issue is explicitly NOT illegal websites. That the university has to comply with the law is a no brainer, it's going beyond the law. The issue is also not that it is also a no-brainer to bypass the filtering with Tor/Vpn/personal hotspots. It's the university preventing access to legal websites.

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    I mean porn websites are also not illegal, but I completely understand if adult content is blocked - which also happens at my reserach institute in Germany.
    – Sursula
    Commented May 17 at 6:34
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    4chan seems extremely unsurprising to be on their block list, with a reputation not just for smut but for illegal or borderline illegal pornography like revenge and similarly non-consensual porn. And among the non-porn areas a strong pro-Nazi/Nazi-glorifying attitude (both serious and 'edgy' varieties) which is not tolerated in Germany.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented May 17 at 11:03
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    It should not be the IT department who makes the decision if a website is compatible with university policy. Commented May 17 at 15:40
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    Is the university government-funded or owned?
    – fraxinus
    Commented May 17 at 16:35
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    @DanielWessel The Google Docs comparison is missing the point. It's not what a user could theoretically do with a tool, it's what it is commonly used for. And given that gab.ai specifically advertises itself as "uncensored AI" you don't need to be a conspiracy theorist to speculate that users will gravitate towards this platform to do things other mainstream platforms don't allow you to do.
    – xLeitix
    Commented May 18 at 8:05

5 Answers 5

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Arguments for filtering:

  • Even content that is not explicitly illegal can be harmful, degrading or demeaning, so it is a benefit to filter it out.

  • Hate speech, adult content etc. are not necessary for research or teaching.

  • University campuses actually do not only have adult visitors. There are students younger than 18 years, or visitors even younger. The university has a duty to protect these vulnerable users.

  • Why a particular website falls into one category, and why this specific category or this specific website should be filtered, will of course be specific to the website or category, so there may be additional arguments to filter this one website.

  • Thanks to Todd Wilcox for this one: even legal and in itself unobjectionable content can be a bandwidth problem. Todd:

    I've worked in environments the USA where during the NBA "March Madness" tournament and NFL draft season, users accessing websites related to those events consumed an inordinate amount of the available bandwidth causing a negative impact on all other traffic. We had to amend the technology use policy and restrict access to sports content to make sure work could continue efficiently.

Arguments against filtering:

  • Who decides what "hate speech" or an "adult website" is? Yes, as you write, one can have recourse... but if the admin decides against you, you pretty much have no further option. Better not to give anyone this power.
  • There are false positives in all these blacklists, i.e., innocuous websites that get filtered in error.
  • The vast majority of users are indeed adult.
  • Free speech and the free flow of information are a value in themselves, especially in academia, which is premised on a free exchange of ideas - and the first step in suppressing ideas is often to label them harmful.
  • This kind of content can actually indeed be the subject of research and teaching. Picture a seminar on political hate speech. Does the instructor need to tell students to access examples on their personal devices in a coffee shop WLAN?

Of course, the university ultimately owns the infrastructure and is under no obligation to provide access at all, or not to censor specific content.

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    The very last point is extremely important. The university network is meant to enable you to work, not for your entertainment (I remember the days of napster being blocked, in the US that is). Commented May 17 at 15:43
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    @Marianne013 indeed looking at a few user agreements for German universities they’re quite explicit in stating that they’re providing network access for strictly educational purposes Commented May 17 at 17:35
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    In practice for this reason dormitories have a seperate network and user agreement for the students living there Commented May 17 at 17:35
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    Haha you build some tension in your answer. I'm not sure it is appropriate or on purpose but the sentence "Hate speech, adult content etc. are not necessary for research or teaching." of course immediately makes you think "Depends on what you research." Of course you go into that in the second half of the answer.
    – Kvothe
    Commented May 17 at 23:43
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    I can think of at least one more reason: Safe entertainment content can sometimes be a major problem for other network traffic. I've worked in environments the USA where during the NBA "March Madness" tournament and NFL draft season, users accessing websites related to those events consumed an inordinate amount of the available bandwidth causing a negative impact on all other traffic. We had to amend the technology use policy and restrict access to sports content to make sure work could continue efficiently. Commented May 18 at 3:52
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The most probable decisive argument "for":

Managing a limited resource in a political manner.

  • Managing a big network is a challenge
  • Managing a big network with a lot of less literate users is a pain in the butt
  • Managing a huge network with a lot of less literate users who cannot be compelled to cooperate is a hell.

Left alone, in a typical university network, the entertainment traffic quickly overtakes the available bandwidth, making the network barely usable. (The malware traffic is quick to follow.)

When pressed to do something, the network admins are usually not in a position to simply increase the network capacity (and even if they are, this just means more porn), so they start filtering.

Once the filtering is in place, the content to be filtered becomes a political matter and the decision-making gets in the hands of the most vocal stakeholders.

On the other hand, the general result from filtering is a transition from an useless nerwork to more or less usable one so most users welcome the change.

The most important argument "against":

Filtering cannot be done right.

It either compromises the end user security (when done by decrypting the traffic), or is very, very coarse, or both.

Most filttering software is crap on its own right and this does not prevent it from being expensive and a resource hog.

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  • Should 'literate' be read as 'technically literate' in this context?
    – Anyon
    Commented May 18 at 15:26
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    @Anyon not necessarily, social, cultural and even local language literacy are related as well
    – fraxinus
    Commented May 18 at 15:44
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    “Left alone, in a typical university network, the entertainment traffic quickly overtakes the available bandwidth, making the network barely usable.” — do you have a source for this? This seems surprising to me (I’d have expected entertainment traffic to be significant but not overwhelming), so I’d be interested to see a source, or at least (if you don’t have a public source) background on how confidently you believe this and why.
    – PLL
    Commented May 19 at 9:22
  • Not sure about a public source and it is not trivial to research the matter anymore because everything is encrypted these days. I have personal experience in this regard both as a user, as well as someone involved in the network administration. In the recent years, the problem is only a little bit easier because of the availability of a cheap cellphone internet and the relative unpopularity of the bittorrent and likes. Facebook/X/Instagram still rule in the upstream pipe, but it is now possible to brute force the problem with gigabits, at least in a corporate/govmnt context. Uni's - not really
    – fraxinus
    Commented May 19 at 9:44
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So I'm interpreting this based on US and what I'm able to find.

On a tangent, according to NYCLU, the general idea is that private institutions (like with any other private entity) has the right to restrict the first Amendment - to that end I'd say it would also result in them restricting what you do and how you do it. Public institutions will lean towards not being restricted, and I'd say that generally, they cannot restrict you in other manners either. That being said, many places are allowed to still, within reason, choose how and when one can express themselves, so to that end, even if it can't be restricted, it can be funneled within reason.

As for filtering the internet itself beyond what is allowed by law...

For Filtering

  1. You can request specific sites to be allowed, so in the event you've got a valid reason to access a blocked site for research, you can provide the reason and get it approved.

  2. The college has a right to block what they believe is a risk to the network as a whole. While you're on their network, if there's a risk of something getting through that can propagate to other devices, both student and college-owned, then that's a problem. Sure, there are firewalls and anti-virus software, but nothing beats avoiding security threats like not putting yourself in the position to possibly get one. Yeah, you can argue "b-but then don't use the internet lol! except there needs to be a good tradeoff; obviously the internet is a lot more important, and there's plenty of legitimate sites that don't pose a risk.

  3. A school is a place for learning, not to socialize or have fun.

  4. Sure, maybe you can have two networks, one is locked down and the other is open-use, and isolate them somehow, but the work involved may not be worth it.

  5. If you wish to socialize or use the internet for recreation, we have cell phones, many of which can have a hotspot feature. Want to do non-essential tasks online? Should be on your time and your dime.

Against filtering

  1. If it's a public institution, one can argue you're stifling free speech/expression.

  2. If it's guaranteed that there are no people under the age of majority (or just no one under 18), then as a legal adult, students should have access to the internet, period, at least as unfiltered as allowed by law, obviously.

  3. If the school's IT team is incompetent at best, then who knows how long you have to wait to unblock something, if you fall into a fringe case? And all too often I hear of professors that choose to not care about what is preventing someone from doing something, even if that thing is outside of the student's control; which might be a good analogue to life, except where in life there's often lots of alternatives - often times a professor has a "my way or the highway" attitude.

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An important distinction here is whether the university is only a space of teaching and learning or whether it also contains dormatories that are the primary residence for students.

If the university does not contain dormatories it can be seen as similar to a place of work and the internet access it provides is related to studying and learning. There is no real reason why the university should give you access to the internet for your personal entertainement. This can actually be a lot more restrictive than what you describe and could also block access to gaming, movies or sports coverage. Universities usually don't act that restrictive but they could.

There are some researchers that need access to websites that are usually restricted, researching hate-speed or computer security and a few other topics. That is what the option to contact the IT department is for.

If on the other hand the university is also the primary place of residence for some students, it should grant access to the internet that is more similar to what you would get when renting an apartment. It should still restrict to legal websites, but otherwise be open. It should also provide you with privacy on what you are browsing.

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Content filtering is "strongly discouraged" by Eduroam policies. From the Eduroam compliance statement:

eduroam SPs [Service providers] are based on SP local policies. However, modifying the content of user connections (e.g., access lists or firewall filter rules to deny arbitrary ports or application-layer proxies) is strongly discouraged and MUST be reported to the respective RO [Roaming operator, the country-level Eduroam authorities].

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