Every week, a new story seems to emerge about governments or corporations seeking to limit freedom of speech on the Internet. In China, where NYU has a portal campus, access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is blocked. Reporters Without Borders, a French nonprofit that promotes freedom of the press, reported that websites in the United Arab Emirates that discuss controversial topics such as “dissenting political opinions, or non-orthodox views of Islam” are routinely blocked by the country’s Telecommunication Regulatory Authority. In February 2011, the Egyptian government pressured the major Internet service providers to shut down Internet access for five days.
Universities should be a place where students can learn without fear of censorship and discussion of controversial topics should be encouraged rather than stifled. Internet censorship is antithetical to these ideals. Recognizing this but wanting to expose students to new cultures, NYU routes traffic from countries with regional censorship through U.S.-based servers. By bypassing these restrictions, NYU allows students to study abroad without sacrificing their freedom of speech. So long as NYU maintains this practice, it is standing with free speech and promoting academic exploration.
The Internet has changed how we communicate, and also how we report information. During times of major social change, such as the Arab Spring, one person with a smartphone could broadcast information to millions. That kind of transmission can only happen when the Internet is not blocked. NYU prevents governments from censoring its students by directing web traffic from its global sites through servers based in the United States using a virtual private network — a connection that obscures the user’s original location. In effect, students in Shanghai or Abu Dhabi appear to be browsing from the United States, which prevents local authorities from censoring the content accessed.
Free speech on the Internet relies on a series of intermediaries — servers, Internet service providers, social networks — that must be kept free from the pressures of censorship. NYU has a responsibility to its students to ensure continued access to the open Internet. Unconstrained inquiry is a core facet of the university experience, and college administrations that align themselves with repressive regimes cheapen the education provided.
Last semester when a group of NYU students, including myself, wrote a letter about the chilling effects of mass surveillance on college campuses, the administration reaffirmed its commitment to free speech on its campuses. The Internet has shortened the news cycle, changed how activists plan revolutions and transformed the university learning experience. Given that free speech is the capstone of academic inquiry, NYU’s commitment to an uncensored Internet is to be commended.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Nov. 5 print edition. Email Tommy Collison at [email protected]