Leeds University has decided to withdraw access to a range of Internet newsgroups because of their "appalling" content, which computer staff say often includes pornographic material. But some academic staff are furious about the move which they claim is an attack on cultural and academic freedom.
Mark Dougherty of the Institute for Transport Studies said: "This is a unilateral action which is unworkable. There have been howls of protest among users and it seems remarkable that a group of non-academic staff profess to be able to determine what is of academic interest to the rest of us."
Mr Dougherty said the newsgroups were "electronic cafes" dedicated to social and recreational exchanges, although many contained information of genuine academic concern.
But Jonathan Duke of the university's computing service said the newsgroups were being withdrawn because they represented a subculture dominated by "appalling trivia" at best and at worst child pornography. "We don't like taking this action because we are not authoritarian but we must support teaching and research as our first priority," Dr Duke said.
He added that a United States study found that 50 per cent of traffic on the newsgroups was pornography related. And the university had recently discovered that an apparently legitimate German newsgroup was masking a pornographic subgroup.
"We will make particular newsgroups available on legitimate academic grounds," Dr Duke said. There had been a request to make a newsgroup on The Archers available, he added, but this was merely a hobby.
Mr Dougherty points out that students will also be affected by the withdrawal of newsgroups. "Many of our students converse and socialise by computer and non-academic newsgroups are a perfect forum for doing so, particularly as they allow informal contact with people from other countries."
He said the university provided bars, restaurants and sports facilities for those who wished to socialise in more conventional ways. "Why should those who wish to use the computing facilities for a similar purpose be discriminated against?" Mr Dougherty also said he failed to see how an acceptable method of determining what is and is not of academic interest could be devised. "It is mean-spirited, unworkable and an attack on our cultural and academic freedom. When will computing services start censoring our electronic mail?"