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A Gratuitous ‘Experiment’ in Censorship? Harrisburg U. Bans Social Networking for a Week

They want the campus to "see how they can use social media in a more positive and efficient way." Huh?

by
Robert Shibley

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September 16, 2010 - 12:00 am
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If someone were to come to you with an earnest proposal to have the government temporarily censor the Internet so that people could have the shared experience of going without it (an experience otherwise known as the entirety of human history before about 1995), what would you say? The vast majority of people would probably say some variation of this: “What a stupid idea. Please go away.” Unfortunately, none of this group appears to be in charge at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, where the response was very different: “How does the week of September 13th sound?”

Indeed, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harrisburg University has decided to block Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and AOL Instant Messenger from university network connections for the duration of the week in order to give students, faculty, and staff a “shared experience” that will allow them to “see how they can use social media in a more positive and efficient way.” Apparently the inefficiency (huh?) and dearth of “positivity” on social media sites is keeping administrators at Harrisburg University up at night.

Don’t call it censorship, though! Eric D. Darr, Harrisburg’s executive vice president and provost, says it’s not: “We’re not denying students, staff, and faculty the right to connect to Facebook since the university network is only one avenue to get to these sites,” he said. “They can drive down the road to a place with wireless if they really want.”

As exercises in censorship go, this is not exactly North Korean in its ambition. But the lack of awareness of the nature of censorship that Darr’s comment displays is stunning. Darr is right that they are “only” censoring the university network. But that makes it no less a form of censorship — it simply means that the amount of effort one must go to to see the things the authorities would like you not to see is less. By this logic, China and Iran are not engaging in “censorship” by blocking politically unacceptable websites because Chinese people and Iranians can always travel to another place where those sites are not blocked, like the United States (well, the part of the United States that is not on the campus of Harrisburg University, anyway). Information has always gotten out in spite of censorship. Soviet dissidents used the “samizdat” system that involved making copies of forbidden documents by hand and passing them along , since copy machines and printing presses were strictly regulated by the KGB. More recently, Iranians used Twitter to subvert their regime’s censorship. (Ironically, this will not be an option for dissidents at Harrisburg University.)

The scale and general “evilness” of these efforts at censorship is obviously vastly different. But they all share the same goal: Harrisburg University, along with the Politburo and the Iranian ayatollahs, all believe that their censorship is justified for the betterment of those being censored. Whether it is preventing the undermining of International Socialism, curbing un-Islamic activity, or creating a student body that is more efficient and positive in its use of social media, censors always tell you they have your best interests at heart.

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