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The balance between protection and academic freedom: Web filtering in HE

©Jisc and Matt Lincoln

Preventing access to extreme sexual and terrorist material on the internet is a no brainer, isn’t it? After all, most of that stuff’s illegal.

Well yes. And no.

Schools and colleges, which have greater duty of care obligations than universities to their under-18 learners, will certainly be making use of web filtering solutions as means of protecting learners and to comply with the Prevent agenda.

Mention web filtering to higher education institutions (HEIs), on the other hand, and academic freedom concerns are immediately raised.

So the uptake of web filtering in universities is patchy: some do it, some don’t.

When I’ve talked to HEIs about this issue, at the outset most think web filtering is a bad idea, but that hard line softens when I explain firstly how sensitive research can be conducted unhindered even with web filtering in place and, secondly, how it can play a role in the welfare of staff and students. With the current media focus on wellbeing in universities, who’d want to compromise on the latter point?


Sensitive research may include subjects such as terrorist recruitment tactics, or sexual psychology. With the right permissions from the university and the authorities, it’s possible to unblock content that would normally be filtered out for one person, a group of people or for particular machines.

For everyone else, web filtering will ensure that no illegal material is accidentally seen, which protects the curious and the vulnerable.

Safety first

Without the right controls in place for sensitive research, a slip-up is all too possible. Let’s say a researcher is in their office legitimately looking at some illegal content. She closes the laptop and takes it with her for lunch. In the canteen she decides to check her email account, opens the lid and up pops a graphic image in full view of other diners.

It is an offense to expose other people, accidentally or not, to this kind of content, so my advice is to create a safe space for research. People with the right permission could book to work at certain desktop computers (not laptops) in a certain access-controlled room.

To get buy-in from researchers, universities can demonstrate the value for wellbeing: the university recognises such research is valuable and is putting in a process to allow freedom of study, while also taking care of the campus community.

It’s not healthy for anyone to be viewing illegal material, so building in care plans for researchers to make sure they are not detrimentally affected is sensible, preferably in partnership with the university’s occupational health department.

Web filtering solutions have built-in reporting systems that can be set up to help with this. For example, it can monitor and control the time an individual spends looking at illegal content.

As a means of taking care of staff, processes like these are in place at the two organisations in charge of monitoring illegal content in the UK, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) and the Counter Terrorism Referral Unit (CTRU). Universities could easily adopt similar systems.

Watching your back

Web filtering can also protect an organisation’s reputation. Imagine this scenario: an administrator gets an email that looks genuine but is actually a phishing attempt. One click and up pops an illegal image with a message threatening to report the administrator to the police unless they pay up.

Bearing in mind web filtering could have blocked both the dodgy email and the image, the administrator might argue he or she wasn’t properly protected by their employer. Similarly, anyone who saw that graphic image on the researcher’s laptop in the canteen could also complain.

Researchers and their employers can be further protected from suspicion by keeping a record when illegal content is accessed. Earlier in my career, I legitimately used illegal hacking tools because it was part of my job to unlock servers, so I had an unfiltered account. But I would record the tools I was using, when I used them and why, so I could prove I wasn’t up to no good if I were ever questioned.

A flexible friend

We’ve touched on using web filtering as a means of controlling access to illegal web content but the flexibility in most systems will allow organisations to control what is accessed from certain machines and who has access – which is useful in a college where the student cohort is a mixture of under 18s and adults.

Controlling what can be opened on a mobile phone is a bit more tricky, since the owners don’t have to connect to the university or college network to use their phone. On the plus side, mobile phone providers block illegal content at source.

It can help protect a network through its malware detection, it can protect students and staff from viewing distressing and potentially harmful material and protect reputation by keeping institutions on the right side of the law.

Our view is that web filtering solutions can be so flexible and tailored that there is no reasonable argument against using one.

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