WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE PROPOSED NEW POLICY?
ISSUES OF PRINCIPLE
- The case for abolishing the existing policy has not been made. We have a
system which has been in place for a decade and has worked well so far. "If it
ain't broke, don't fix it". There is no good reason to move any pages off the
there is no reason to prevent any existing sites from being hosted on University
- The official statements of why the policy needs changing are contradictory.
In the policy documents it is stated that the issue is one of security:
"Improperly managed web sites however pose a threat to the University, and
can be used by unauthorised people to breach network security measures and
launch virus and other service affecting attacks, with serious effect."
Yet at Senate and Council, the acting Registrar and Secretary and the VC
(respectively) stated that a change of policy was necessary to prevent the
University from being sued because of the content of websites. This is a
totally different argument.
- At present the University has no proper firewalls round its servers. If the
University's concern is to prevent virus / hacking attacks, then surely basic
security issues should be addressed instead of taking draconian measures to
close down personal websites.
- If, on the other hand, it is the legal liability issue that the University
is concerned about, then the University's proposed policy is going to make it
more, not less, liable to legal action. At present, there is a
well-established complaints policy: if the University receives a complaint about
the content of a website on a University machine, the site is suspended while
the complaint is investigated. If the content is found to be illegal (e.g.
because it infringes a company's copyright or incites racial hatred), the site
owner is asked to remove that portion of the content which is illegal. In law
the University has the defence that it did not know about the illegal content,
but acted as soon as it became aware of it. Under the new policy this defence
will no longer be available: all personal web pages will be deemed to have been
approved by the Head of School concerned, so if a complaint arrives the
University will be instantly liable: it will not have the defence of saying
"we didn't know about it".
- If the University thinks it will have no complaints or legal challenges with
websites which are judged "relevant" to their owners' academic work, it is
mistaken. Some academics work in sensitive and controversial areas, researching
subjects like pornography, child abuse or international politics.
- One website owner writes:
"Currently, a university teacher holds the intellectual copyright on
their course material. If the university refuses to allow for personal
information providers, then a teacher can legally refuse to allow the
university to use WEBCT or whatever stupid system they use to mount the
material on the web; indeed, those who let them do so may well be giving
up their copyright in so doing. So, effectively IT is pursuing a strategy
that can only REDUCE the amount of web-based teaching materials. The
university may well have plans to have all course materials mounted on the
web. If they abandon the Personal Information Providers then I do not believe
they can achieve this. I, for one, would refuse point-blank to allow my
teaching material to appear on a managed web-site."
- The proposed policy puts unacceptable powers in the hands of Heads of
leaving it to them to decide what constitutes a site "relevant" to a member of
staff's academic or administrative work. It is not fair to expect a HoS to
know the details of every colleague's teaching/research/admin, which will often
be in fields in which the HoS has no expertise. We anticipate that many HoSs
will not be happy about having to make this kind of decision. Moreover,
we were told that HoSs would be consulted about the policy before implementing
apparently no such consultation has taken place. Since HoSs will be at the
edge of implementing the policy, the very least the University could have done
asked them how they felt about this!
- At Council, the VC himself introduced the item, saying it had "been through
Senate". This is not an accurate representation of what occurred at Senate.
At no time did IS or any member of management put the draft policy before
Senate for its approval.
The issue was only raised at all because one of the elected representatives
to Senate (Ron Speirs of Humanities) asked some questions about the proposed
policy, at the request of a website owner in his School. It was Ron who got
the issue put on the agenda. We do not believe that the proposers of the
new policy had any intention of bringing it before Senate at any time. No
copies of any version of the policy were made available for the members of
Senate. All they had to go on were the questions raised by Ron and the
(unsatisfactory) responses from Jill Ball.
- Does the plan to build a "site firewall" round departmental websites mean
that information on the courses we teach will not be available to the world in
general? Many students make use of these sites from all over the world, and
many of our prospective students make initial contact with the University of
Birmingham as a result of what they find on the personal web pages as a result
of doing Google searches.
- Many of the Research Councils, e.g. ESRC, are calling for better
dissemination of research via the Web. Indeed this may be a criterion for
obtaining funding from them. A website owner comments: "Since UoB taxes on
overheads at 46% they may be in trouble with the funding councils if they
are not providing the necessary services and it is clear that dissemination
through a website edited and run by an administrator and at the permission
of the head of school may very well lead to conflicts of interest of which
they should be aware."
- Some of the pages which will presumably be disallowed because they are not
"relevant" to the website-owner's academic work are Trade Union pages. One of
these features links to sites which campaign against bullying and harrassment in
the workplace. This is an unacceptable restriction on the freedom of trade
unions to organise on campus and disseminate information.
- Many other universities pride themselves on offering free web space to
students, indeed this is featured in their prospectuses. The University of
Birmingham's policy was once viewed as a model of good practice; now it will be
seen as the opposite.
ISSUES OF PRACTICALITY
- David Supple stated at a seminar held on 22nd January 2004 that the Sun7
machine was to be decommissioned. When Sue Blackwell asked when this had been
decided, and pointed out that all her academic work and e-mail was on the Sun7,
Supple expressed surprise and stated that in that case the Sun7 would NOT be
decommissioned. If the machine is to be left up and running because of its
other functions, why not retain it as a web server?
- Even for those sites which are judged "relevant to one's academic work" and
permitted to remain, apparently they are to move to a different University web
server. David Supple stated that the new server would be part of the new
Portal; other sources in IS say this is incorrect and in fact personal web sites
would be moved to a cluster of PCs run by the Corporate Web Team. This raises at
least two specific problems: (a) users will presumably have to edit their pages
on other machines and upload them, thereby doubling the among of time taken to
maintain them; and (b) the new cluster does not support PHP and MYSQL which are
required to run some of the pages currently being maintained on the Sun6 and
Sun7, such as the IAFL online bibliography.
- Even if it were technically possible, no way are website owners going
to have time to move all their files across to the new server within the
proposed timescale. The proposal to remove the existing service at the end of
March is utterly ridiculous. This does not even allow staff to use the Easter
Vacation to move their pages to other sites. The inevitable result is that
valuable resources will simply be unavailable for long periods of time. In
particular, students will not have access to the sites over the Easter vacation
while many of them are relying on them for assessed coursework being written up
over that period.
- At present, some of us have ALL our work on the Sun7 so that we can have our
e-mail, correspondence with students etc., and websites all on the same machine.
This makes it easy, for example, to copy a link from an e-mail message and
paste it into a web page. Are we going to be able to have all our e-mail,
programs, data files etc. on the new server to maintain this kind of
integration? If so, it will require a lot more file space and a lot more time
and effort transferring everything. If not, we will probably have to edit our
web pages on one machine and then upload them to another, instead of editing
them directly on the server. Some of us make dozens of changes to our web pages
every day. Constant logging on, ftp-ing and uploading will enormously increase
the time we have to spend on maintaining our web pages and reduce the time we
have for our other academic activities.
- At present many of the personal web pages on the Sun7 have a high profile on
the Web and feature prominently in Google searches because of the cumulative
number of hits. (Try, for instance, Googling the term "forensic linguistics":
the two top sites are Bham Uni personal web pages.) If these sites are forced
to move to a new Web address at such short notice they will lose their
prominence, links from other pages will be broken and potential web surfers will
not be able to find them. All of this is damaging to the University's
This page is maintained by Sue Blackwell
Last updated: 4th March 2004