Onions make you cry

This week brings bad news (via the Chronicle of Higher Education, and picked up by Slashdot – although most of the /. comments centre on a silly argument of academic jobs vs ‘the real world’) of a dispute with uncomfortable similarities to Felten v RIAA (where the recording industry tried to squash the publication of copy-protection-testing research results, despite the fact that the researchers started their work in response to a music industry ‘public challenge!).

Paul Cesarini is an assistant prof at Bowling Green University in Ohio.  He uses and teaches about EFF project  Tor (The Onion Router).  The IT department at the university came a-knocking at his door, unhappy with his use of the software (apparently it’s in violation of the acceptable use policy) and also suggesting that he should stop mentioning it in classes.

Students who are told about Tor are getting a genuine picture of how the Internet can be used, and indeed will end up with quite a nuanced understanding of network design.  Certainly better than the hundreds of teenagers who attended Ireland’s Young Scientist exhibition last month and were told (complete with flashy graphics) that all emails go through a (“the”) Root Server (played with a deep dark voice, of course) as a stream of packets.  (Maybe they get there through tubes).  In any event, even those who disagree with the philosophy behind Tor cannot deny that it illustrates some crucial issues relating to Internet governance, privacy and regulation.

As an aside, there’s quite some irony in the other aspect of Cesarini’s article (the attempt to forbid him from using Tor in his individual capacity through university equipment); he’s in good company, joining the US-government sponsored Voice of America (who promote and encourage tunnelling software in China) and the University of Toronto Psiphon project.  Perhaps the busybodies that have chased Cesarini might turn their attention there next?

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