Censorship claim as surfers find sites blocked

February 24, 2006

Nottingham Trent University has been accused of censorship after installing a software package to block staff access to a wide range of websites.
Lecturers' union Natfhe this week said that the university's decision to install Websense web-security software without consultation or discussion with academic staff had already prevented access to sites of entirely legitimate research interest, such as those on drug abuse, gambling, social deviancy and even abortion.

A Natfhe spokesman said the software could restrict academic freedom.

"Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth, and our members put great store by such a principle," he said.

Natfhe became aware of the new software package this month when one academic searching for a research paper on the drug Ecstasy located it on a website dedicated to the substance, www.mdma.net . But he was prevented from entering the site. His computer flashed the statement "You have been prevented from accessing this web page in line with NTU's internet policy" because the software censored all material under the category "abused drugs".

The computer notice instructed the staff member to contact the relevant head of department "if you have a valid reason for accessing this site".

The software is designed to prevent employees accessing illegal websites while at work and to stop staff browsing online shopping sites or gambling sites when they should be working. The software can be adjusted, allowing managers to decide which types of sites should be barred. The Natfhe spokesman said: "Someone somewhere will have deemed a particular website unsuitable. This raises issues about who is making that decision, the people behind the software and the people controlling the software. If the university does think that it has a legitimate need to introduce such measures, then we see no reason why matters have not been brought to us for discussion."

One member of staff said: "Of course I would be very concerned about the infringement on academic freedom that such censorship would entail."

The university this week said that it had to protect itself and its staff from legal and security risks, and that it had introduced the software "in common with a number of other universities". It admitted that it had mistakenly included "drug abuse" among a list of categories to be censored, but said that this had been rectified immediately on discovery.

An NTU spokesman said: "Uncontrolled internet access from within an organisation can represent a significant legal and security risk and therefore the university has a legal obligation to protect its people and IT systems from such exposure."

She said that there would be a period of discussion to work out how and in what manner the new software would be made fully operational "so as to ensure that the integrity of academic freedom is preserved".

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