McGrath proposal unworkable
To the editor,
This is in response to the story, "Proposed bills would monitor university Web use, catalogs" that ran on January 18.
The proposed censorship bill would essentially require the University to monitor all the computer network traffic that enters the university. The purpose is evidently to protect university students from exposure to sexually explicit material via the Internet.
There are two fundamental questions that have to be answered here: Is this something we should do, and - if the answer to that is yes - is this something we can do?
The answer to both questions is no.
It is not the place of the university to censor the information available to its students. On the contrary, the university should be a place where controversial topics are freely discussed. It is impossible to protect everyone from exposure to something they might find offensive, and it is inappropriate to try.
On a more technical level, such a bill would be impossible to enforce anyway.
Greg Fahey's estimate that there are 32,000 workstations in use on campus is probably low, and a number of those workstations are privately owned - not university property.
Rep. McGrath talks about using "filters" to automate this censorship, but there are no filters that work well enough to be useful. I could go into more details about why they don't work, but suffice it to say that they do not (and cannot) have good judgment. They can be too permissive, in which case they will block some of what they are supposed to but still allow through so much that nothing has been accomplished. They can be too restrictive, blocking sites based on things like keyword matches; this approach would block a wide variety of sites that should be permitted. There is no way to reliably identify the content that you want to block, so how can the decision of what to block be automated?
The only way that such a decision could be made with anything approaching good judgment would be to have a person do it, and this is clearly impossible.
The staffing requirements for such a thing would be tremendous, the inconvenience to the user would be worse, and the privacy concerns alone - which are significant but beyond the scope of this letter - should make it unacceptable.
Chris De Young
Network Systems Analyst senior