FIRE’s Robert Shibley Blasts Harrisburg University’s Social Networking Ban in ‘Pajamas Media’

By September 17, 2010

Over at Pajamas Media, FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley pokes fun at Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg University’s recent decision to block social networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and AOL Instant Messenger from university network connections for the duration of this week. The university apparently did so in order to give students, faculty, and staff a "shared experience" that will allow them to "see how they can use social media in a more positive and efficient way."

Of this silly and misguided bit of campus paternalism, Robert writes:

Don’t call it censorship, though! Eric D. Darr, Harrisburg’s executive vice president and provost, says it’s not: "We’re not denying students, staff, and faculty the right to connect to Facebook since the university network is only one avenue to get to these sites," he said. "They can drive down the road to a place with wireless if they really want."

As exercises in censorship go, this is not exactly North Korean in its ambition. But the lack of awareness of the nature of censorship that Darr’s comment displays is stunning. Darr is right that they are "only" censoring the university network. But that makes it no less a form of censorship – it simply means that the amount of effort one must go to to see the things the authorities would like you not to see is less. By this logic, China and Iran are not engaging in "censorship" by blocking politically unacceptable websites because Chinese people and Iranians can always travel to another place where those sites are not blocked, like the United States (well, the part of the United States that is not on the campus of Harrisburg University, anyway).

Robert goes on to say:

Harrisburg University admits that its Internet blocking is easily skirted. After all, students can go off campus to a place with wireless Internet, or use their smartphones to access these social networks. This makes the censorship attempt more of an annoyance than a real prohibition. Yet since the point of the exercise is to give students a shared experience in deprivation, it stands to reason that if Harrisburg University could figure out a way to block smartphones and outside wi-fi access, it would do so. That would make the experiment less of an annoyance and more of a real experiment. But the fact that the prohibition can be easily skirted is how the university is avoiding calling the blocking "censorship" in the first place!

Quite right. And corroborating Robert’s point that Harrisburg’s ban is as much of an annoyance as anything else is an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, smartly titled "Harrisburg U.’s Social-Media Blackout Is More of a Brownout." Indeed; one wonders what the administration at Harrisburg was thinking when they instituted this ban.

Read Robert’s full entry at Pajamas Media here.