Students: You are being watched

Cambridge students and professors alike have expressed their dismay at news reports of Leeds University's approach to monitoring and disciplining its students.

Last term, three students at Leeds had all access to their university internet system cut off, as a "punishment" for posting negative comments about Leeds University on Twitter. The tweets, which described one lecturer as "boring" and criticised the university's standard of education generally, were taken down by the students involved soon after they were posted. A month later, the students were without warning denied access to the university internet network, Information Systems Services (ISS).

The students were not told why their internet had been blocked until they made an enquiry to ISS, and only discovered that the blockage was a "punishment" at a subsequent meeting with ISS. The university has been evasive about the procedure, only offering the following statement: "when the individuals reported to Helpdesk they were asked to talk to the IT Security Co-ordinator, which is the normal process. The details of the action taken are regarded as confidential."

Dave, a third-year philosophy student at Leeds, proved surprisingly sympathetic to the university's policy: "I guess if people are posting negative stuff about the Leeds on Twitter and tagging it, which is what happened, then it's within their rights. But if they're keeping records of everyone's internet history, that's a bit off." It is easy to forget that Cambridge, like Leeds, stores and monitor all web traffic that takes place on the University networks (whether through Lapwing or Eduroam).

According to the disclaimer new students are made to sign, the University reserves the right to punish students, and to fine them more than £200 for misuse of the network.

When contacted, representatives of Cambridge's University Computing Service (UCS) were unavailable for comment. However, one member of the UCS staff, speaking to TCS, explained that "it's always monitored... we have blocked students' internet in the past", but was unable to specify under exactly what circumstances such ‘blockings' are put in place. Surprisingly, the repercussions of Leeds' actions appear to have been taken more seriously here at Cambridge than they have in Leeds. Dr Tom Simpson, a philosopher specialising in internet ethics, and currently working as a research fellow at Sidney Sussex, has issued a statement to TCS condemning Leeds University's actions. "The University's response was disproportionate - akin to banning someone from eating because they were involved in a food fight. Conventionally we make up for a public insult by apologising publicly, and the matter should then be allowed to rest there."

However, Simpson did concede that the students' actions warranted an apology: "The lecturer might have been boring, but it is rude to describe them as such so publicly... The students should have known better."

The student body's reaction has been mixed. Daniel Fulvio, a second-year at Caius, was shocked by Leeds' actions: "It's outrageous. It seems totalitarian. Why would they curtail freedom of speech? It's supposed to be a democratic society." Napper Tandy, a second-year at Peterhouse, agreed: "I can't believe that any university thinks it has the power over the students' right to criticise their standard of teaching."

Others have expressed disapproval, but not shock. One English student who wished to remain anonymous shared her experience with TCS: "It's not unknown at all. At my secondary school, a guy got into trouble for calling a teacher a c*** on Facebook. He was suspended, but not for a whole year after it happened."

As far as TCS is aware, Cambridge has never blocked students' internet as a punishment for publishing anti-university comments.

Tristram Fane Saunders - Deputy News Editor

Article first published 18 October 2012

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