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New Internet Filters Block Pornographic Content In Dorms

Five years ago, internet filtration at Yeshiva College was a far-off dream for the rabbis of RIETS. But after months of deliberations, a handful of articles in student publications, discussions about the technical aspects of filtration, and permission given from the powers-that-be, the internet in Yeshiva College dorm-rooms are now officially filtered for pornographic content. For the first time, students who log onto prohibited websites will receive a message indicating that the website has been blocked.

A week before orientation, YC students received an e-mail from the Dean of RIETS, Rabbi Yona Reiss, detailing the university’s new dormitory-wide internet filter. Rabbi Reiss opened the e-mail with a verse from Deuteronomy [23:15] “And your dwelling places shall be kept holy,” before cautiously and consciously outlining the filter’s necessity, intent, and parameters. Rabbi Reiss wrote: “pornographic images […] have no place in our uptown Yeshiva University dormitories.” In fact – Rabbi Reiss states – “it was at the suggestion of a number of students who wished to confront this matter in a thoughtful way that a committee was formed.” When asked in a later interview with The Commentator who exactly these students were, Rabbi Reiss told The Commentator that “a committee was formed consisting of a number of student leaders – there was an issue that needed to be addressed, and it was.” Rabbi Reiss did not specify the positions of these “student leaders.”

In the months leading up to the filter’s implementation, student publications revealed that YU Arevim, an anonymous student group of self-proclaimed pornography addicts, had been heavily invested in the issue. In an article published in The Commentator on December 9, 2011, Benjamin Abramowitz wrote that the YU Arevim approached the administration with the idea of a network-wide installation of Covenant Eyes – an effort to sidestep the idea of a filter while still allowing for some level of accountability online. The suggestion was shot down by RIETS faculty as being too “big brother.” Indeed, Rabbi Reiss insisted that under no circumstances would the new filtration system store information about individual users’ Internet viewing history.

Instead of using Covenant Eyes, the administration chose to set up a network filter, common in many workplaces, in the YC dorms. In order to set up the filter, Information Technology specialists created a separate network called “YUDorm” for all three dormitory buildings in the Wilf campus that would be under the filter. The Internet in the library, classrooms, and administrative offices remain unfiltered under the name YUWireless.

The bifurcation of the internet network prompted one anonymous faculty member to ask, “Why not just have it everywhere at YU? Either you do, or you don’t – there’s no middle ground.” Ephy Weinberg [Syms ‘13] echoed a differing opinion: “They should offer a filter, but only for the students who want it.” Students have also voiced concerns over slower network speeds, which many believe are due to the new changes.   Although ITS acknowledged that there are the problems with the dorm-room internet in a recent YStud, their notification made no mentions of the issues being related to the filter.

Content filtered out by the new system may be challenged by sending an email to a committee of rabbis. This same committee will be reevaluating the system mid-year.  Hate and violent websites are not being blocked under the filter. Streaming illegal videos on some websites are blocked on all YU networks because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, not because of the new pornography filter.

Now that the filter is up, some students view the filter as an infringement on basic rights. One student, speaking anonymously, stated: I’m upset about it. As much as this is a yeshiva, it’s foremost a university.” Eden Weinstein [YC ‘15] spoke similarly: “I think it’s immature to put a filter on the Internet. We’re all adults here.”

Pornography in the United States alone is roughly a $13 billion industry, with that number rising yearly. 77 percent of adult Americans said they viewed pornography at least once in a 30-day period. One faculty member – speaking on terms of anonymity – told The Commentator: “YU is fighting a battle it can’t win. In the end of the day, if students want it, they’ll get it. The filter is just a Band-aid for a much larger issue.”

Yeshiva University joins a number of other national universities that conduct filtration. Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is one such university that has campus-wide internet filters. However, BYU requires its students to follow its Honor Code and be in good Honor Code standing in order to graduate. “Involvement with gambling; pornographic, erotic, or indecent material; disorderly, obscene, or indecent conduct or expressions […] is not permitted in student housing,” states the Honor Code. YC administrators insisted filtration wouldn’t turn into policing. The goal was simply to solve a pornography problem plaguing students.  For a college invested in the spiritual and religious growth of its students, filtration “just made sense.”

It seems most students agree. The heated debates, angry mobs, and cries of censorship that were foretold online never emerged on campus. Instead, most students don’t seem too bothered by the filter at all. However, the filter’s looming presence bothered Nadav Salomon [YC ‘15] who told The Commentator: “I think the filter is necessary for some students, but its very existence makes me feel like a bad person.”