Academic freedom and ‘unpublishing’ your thoughts

This disturbing case in America raises questions about the implications of the NSA’s activities for academic freedom (HT Gurminder Bhambra):

professor in the computer science department at Johns Hopkins, a leading American university, had written a post on his blog, hosted on the university’s servers, focused on his area of expertise, which is cryptography. The post was highly critical of the government, specifically the National Security Agency, whose reckless behavior in attacking online security astonished him.

Professor Matthew Green wrote on 5 September:

I was totally unprepared for today’s bombshell revelations describing the NSA’s efforts to defeat encryption. Not only does the worst possible hypothetical I discussed appear to be true, but it’s true on a scale I couldn’t even imagine.

The post was widely circulated online because it is about the sense of betrayal within a community of technical people who had often collaborated with the government. (I linked to it myself.)

On Monday, he gets a note from the acting dean of the engineering school asking him to take the post down and stop using the NSA logo as clip art in his posts. The email also informs him that if he resists he will need a lawyer. The professor runs two versions of the same site: one hosted on the university’s servers, one on Google’s blogger.com service. He tells the dean that he will take down the site mirrored on the university’s system but not the one on blogger.com.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/10/nsa-matthew-green-takedown-blog-post-johns-hopkins

The analysis in the article is pretty incisive, making a convincing case that this censorship is entirely preemptive and perhaps even more worrying for it:

Dennis O’Shea told me the original concern was that Matthew Green’s post might be “illegally linking to classified information”. I asked him what law he was referring to. “I’m not saying that there was a great deal of legal analysis done,” he replied. Obviously. But again: given the severity of the remedy – unpublishing an expert’s post critical of the NSA – careful legal analysis was called for. Why was it missing?

In commenting critically on a subject he is expert in, and taking an independent stance that asks hard questions and puts the responsibility where it belongs, Matthew Green is doing exactly what a university faculty member is supposed to be doing. By putting his thoughts in a blog post that anyone can read and link to, he is contributing to a vital public debate, which is exactly what universities need to be doing more often. Instead of trying to get Matthew Green’s blog off their servers, the deans should be trying to get more faculty into blogging and into the public arena. Who at Johns Hopkins is speaking up for these priorities? And why isn’t the Johns Hopkins faculty roaring about this issue? (I teach at New York University, and I’m furious.)

Notice: Matthew Green didn’t get any takedown request from Google. Only from Johns Hopkins. Think about what that means for the school. He’s “their” professor, yet his work is safer on the servers of a private company than his own university. The institution failed in the clutch. That it rectified it later in the day is welcome news, but I won’t be cheering until we have answers that befit a great institution like Johns Hopkins, where graduate education was founded on these shores.

And another thing: America’s  system of research universities is the best in the world. No one argues with that. It’s one of biggest advantages this nation has. If it becomes captive to government and handmaiden to the surveillance state, that would be an economic and cultural crime of monstrous proportions. What happened to Matthew Green’s blog post yesterday is no small matter.

It raises an important sociological point about how institutions might mediate (and perhaps amplify) the operations of the NSA through a potent combination of risk aversion and idiocy. This case is extremely worrying.


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