by Ariel Kaminer
The idea did not seem controversial at first: Peter Xu and Harry Yu, twin brothers who are seniors at Yale University, set out to build a better, more user-friendly version of the university’s online course catalog. But as Mark Zuckerberg found when he decided to build a better version of Harvard’s undergraduate student directory, these things can take on a life of their own.
Yale shut down the brothers’ website last week, helping to turn a local campus issue into something of a civil rights cause. Now, after a few days of controversy, a similar tool is up and running, and it appears to be Yale that has gotten a schooling.
The brothers said they were tired of the university’s “clunky” online catalog, which made it hard to see how students from previous semesters had evaluated courses. So in December 2012, Mr. Xu and Mr. Yu, both computer science majors, came up with their own version.
They called it Yale Blue Book +, or YBB+, a reference to the Yale Blue Book, a course selection website that other students had developed and sold to the school a couple of years ago.
“We wanted it to be faster to use,” Mr. Xu said. On his site, he continued, “You can click on a course, you can see its description, you can see what other students have said about it — all in a few clicks.” In particular, students could sort courses by numerical ratings given by students in previous semesters, and see what courses their Facebook friends were looking at.
It was a success: Last semester, 1,840 students — more than a third of the undergraduate student body — used it to choose their courses, the brothers said. Which is why they were shocked when they got a letter on Jan. 7 from the registrar describing YBB+ as “a big problem.”
University administrators said they were concerned that the site was available to people who were not Yale students, that it gave undue prominence to the numerical ratings without including the descriptive evaluations that went with them, and that it infringed on Yale trademarks. Mr. Xu and Mr. Yu wrote to the registrar offering to fix those three things, along with “4. Anything else you want.”
But Yale opted for more decisive action: It shut the site down.
To Mr. Xu and Mr. Yu, that seemed like a violation of free speech — a right held dear by both academics and Internet activists, many of whom rallied to the brothers’ cause as The Yale Daily News, The Washington Post and other news organizations reported on the shutdown.
Brad Rosen, a lecturer in Yale’s computer science department who teaches “Law, Technology and Culture,” said the debate got at a central tension of contemporary life. “Different stakeholders have different assumptions about how information is going to flow,” he said.
As petitions circulated, Sean Haufler, another senior in computer science, built a workaround that made the administration’s disapproval effectively irrelevant.
Over the course of 12 hours, Mr. Haufler figured out how to give users of the older Yale Blue Book all the same functions that YBB+ offered — in a way that the university had no power to block. While he was at it, he wrote a blog post that began, “I hope I don’t get kicked out of Yale for this.” The post went viral. Since then two advocacy groups, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have posted messages of support on Twitter, as have officials at Harvard, Columbia and M.I.T., among others.
On Monday evening, Yale backed down.
“In retrospect,” Mary Miller, the dean of Yale College, wrote in an open letter to the Yale community, “I agree that we could have been more patient in asking the developers to take down information they had appropriated.”
She said that Yale had not violated anyone’s free speech, but “questions of who owns data are evolving before our very eyes. Just this weekend, we learned of a tool that replicates YBB+’s efforts without violating Yale’s appropriate-use policy, and that leapfrogs over the hardest questions before us. What we now see is that we need to review our policies and practices.”
Mr. Haufler said the experience had been unexpectedly educational. After graduation, he intends to work at a start-up. As for what project he has in mind, that is one idea he is keeping under his hat.
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated the surname of one of the twin brothers who built a version of Yale’s online course catalog. As the article correctly stated, he is Harry Yu, not Harry Xu. (His twin, Peter Xu, has a different surname.)
Schools: Yale University