We take many of our civil liberties for granted here at Carnegie Mellon; ten years ago students learned to respect them the hard way. The University, partially in a response to a fradulent SURG study that claimed that 83.5 percent of Usenet newsgroups were pornographic, censored the Internet.
The story of the fradulent study has become one of the most famous elements of Internet lore. Marty Rimm, then a CMU undergrad, published what is arguably one of the most clear-cut examples of faulty and unethical research. He spied on users? Andrew accounts, plagiarized, misrepresented his findings, misleadingly represented his study as if it had been performed by a faculty member, fabricated information, and didn?t bother to inform his subjects of what he was doing. None of this information became clear at the time, as he kept his paper secret and did not expose it to peer review. What Rimm was able to do was align himself with conservative social groups who wanted to shut down pornographic websites and convince people that the Internet was full of pornography.
When questioned, Rimm was never able to verify his claims about Usenet?s being 83.5 percent pornographic. Yet evidence was not necessary for Carnegie Mellon to make the decision to remove access to over 80 newsgroups. Glancing through the Tartan archives, the list of newsgroups is somewhat surprising. While some choices, such as alt.sex.bondage, are obvious, some are downright confusing, such as alt.sex.woody-allen. Furthermore, it remains unclear what threat alt.sex.fetish.startrek posed, and perhaps alt.sex.bondage.sco.unix can shed some light on SCO?s ongoing lawsuits.
On the tenth anniversary of this action, Carnegie Mellon students are free to browse any of the alt.sex subtrees, as the administration soon reversed the decision after students protested. Yet the faulty research continued to have a huge impact; it was cited on the floor of the United States Senate as a reason to pass the Communications Decency Act of 1994.
There are many lessons that we can learn from this episode of CMU history, most of them relating to the importance of the ill effects of fraudulent research that is driven by ideological motives. Yet there is an important lesson about the freedom of speech and the right of students to advocate for a change in University policy.
In 1994, the Internet played a significantly different role in people?s lives. While it might seem incomprehensible now for CMU to decide what students can and cannot view on the Internet, it was not so outlandish 10 years ago. Only through the efforts of a diligent group of students who viewed Internet censorship as a civil liberties issue was the decision reversed. Had those students not protested against the decision and just waited for the issue to run its course, it?s very possible that Carnegie Mellon would have continued to censor the Internet.
The lesson to learn here is that no policy should be above criticism and that history will judge our actions far differently than we can ever imagine. Perhaps ten years from now, students will be appalled to learn that Carnegie Mellon once imposedbandwidth restrictions or prevented file sharing; or who knows, perhaps online gambling will be illegal in a decade.
Either way, what matters isn?t the policies themselves but the ways students organize and advocate for change. Far more important that what students believe is that they stand up and fight for their beliefs. Whether it?s in Warner Hall or Washington, D.C., there is no reason to stand silently by as administrations pursue policies with which you disagree.