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Rabbi Yona Reiss Unveils Plan for Internet Censorship: Dormitory Pornography to Be Blocked

Rumors of administrative plans to censor Wilf Campus internet have circulated for years. Student responses have been angry, if whispered, lest their speakers come off as overly invested in the material in question. By and large, students have been unaware of the actual plans, with many under the impression that “RIETS is going to get rid of all computers on campus,” as one SYMS junior asserted. In an exclusive interview with The Commentator, Rabbi Yona Reiss, the Max and Marion Grill Dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), confirmed the university’s plans to censor its internet service, explaining what form this censorship will take and what spurred its implementation.

Two years ago, Rabbi Reiss was approached by an independently-formed committee of students calling themselves “YU Arevim.” YU Arevim told Rabbi Reiss that many of its board members struggled with addictions to pornography, and that they were not alone: many YU students, they insisted, are weighed down by pornography addictions satisfied in the privacy of their dorms.

“Honestly,” said Rabbi Reiss, “before these students came to speak with me, I had no idea that pornography was such a pervasive problem on campus.” Upon hearing about it, Rabbi Reiss was eager to hear how he might help.

YU Arevim described an available technology through which every student could pick a number of people, perhaps five, who would receive emails every time that student accessed a pornographic website. Such a system, apparently, has deterred students and members of other institutions from viewing pornography.

The software they suggested is called Covenant Eyes, and it provides both internet accountability and filtration. It blocks sites deemed inappropriate, and sends regular updates to a user’s selected authorities, listing all sites visited, all sites blocked, and all search terms typed. Covenant Eyes is run by a right-wing Christian organization.

According to YU Arevim, it would be worthwhile for the Sganei Mashgiach to work together with the administration in the Covenant Eyes-faciliated anti-pornography effort. YU Arevim felt that many students would choose to have the Sganei Mashgiach automatically alerted when they accessed pornography.

Rabbi Reiss dismissed the proposition, explaining that he felt “it was creepy.” He added, “The whole thing just seemed so big brother to me,” and “why should people be coming to me with their pornographic problems?” On another note, Rabbi Reiss commented that he was uncomfortable having YU student internet histories held on file by an external, Christian organization.

That said, Rabbi Reiss was determined to identify a different system, perhaps a less creepy one, that would help curb the evident pornography problem.

Rabbi Reiss formed a committee, whose members he himself appointed, to discuss the issue. The committee was comprised of Dr. David Pelcovitz, the Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Chair of Psychology and Jewish Education at Yeshiva’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, a number of roshei yeshiva, members of YU Areivim, and student leaders.

The committee concluded that an internet filter was, in fact, necessary. The problem was that the world of internet filters is a shady one, with systems of widely varying efficacies all claiming to be the best. Some filters are too weak, failing to block some obviously-pornographic sites, while other programs get a little carried away in their noble mission, at times blocking sites like The New York Times.

Rabbi Reiss determined that neither of these kinds of ineffectual systems was worth pursuing. The committee discussions were tabled, as it seemed no filter met the administration’s needs.

But after conferring with Marc Milstein, Yeshiva University Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer, YU Areivim and the internet censorship committee gained confidence. Milstein confirmed with the committee that there was a reliable, precise filter that well fit YU’s needs.

The committee’s decision to institute this filter was unanimous.

“The question now became,” said Rabbi Reiss, “whether we should have the filter in all buildings on campus, or just in the dorms.

“I would hope that that the public nature of a place like the library would sufficiently inhibit people from pursuing inappropriate content there. I am familiar, though, with the anecdotes of people traveling to our library, from far away, for the express purpose of watching pornography.”

Rabbi Reiss, along with his committee, ultimately decided that the filter is only necessary in the dorms.

According to Rabbi Reiss, because of the University’s pre-existing technological frameworks, the filter cannot be installed until the end of this academic year, and may have to wait even longer.

Student reactions to news of impending filtration have been pointed.

“Rather than confronting and addressing the very troubling core issues underlying the fact that so much pornography is watched in the dorms,” said Yitzhak Bronstein (YC’12), “this seems to be a way for the institution to sweep a disturbing phenomenon under the rug.”

Eitan Novogrodsky (YC ’13) is similarly critical. He said, “The University's decision is a gross encroachment on students' personal lives, an authoritarian disregard for student rights, and yet another example of the absurd influence the roshei yeshiva have on University policy. Ironically, the public intrusion on students' private sexual practices is itself a lewd and tasteless action—unfit for a university’s administration.”

While YU Arevim is a mostly anonymous organization, other students who support the filter also spoke to The Commentator. Noach Goldstein (YC ’13) believes, “It’s understandable that YU has the right as a university and the obligation as a yeshiva to bar pornography from its dormitories, just as it prohibits alcohol and gambling. I’m skeptical about whether a filter will be an effective solution, but if YU feels it will be, they have the right to install it.”

Additional complaints abound. Who are the YU Arevim?  Could they possibly constitute a representative sample of the Yeshiva student body?

Numerous student groups pepper the typical Heights Lounge evening, trying to work as conduits between the students and administration—yet it seems no group has been able to effect university policy as quickly as YU Arevim.

Students are stunned, perhaps most of all, that their peers, mired in the maximally personal tension of a pornography addiction, demanded help from the administration. Israel Heller (YC ’13) commented, “This is not addiction to pornography. This is addiction to authority.”