Some students studying abroad in countries like China and Russia may discover their access to internet is restricted by the local government, rendering them unable to access high quality news and essential social media sites.
In countries like China, the government prohibits people from accessing a variety of websites, including Google, Facebook and The New York Times. Without access to search engines such as Google, academic research becomes unduly difficult; without access to reporting from the free press, students cannot stay current on events.
Hoyas do have one saving grace: Georgetown University has a virtual private network system that allows users to circumvent internet restrictions in countries that practice censorship. However, though some students are granted VPN access, the university’s website explicitly states that students are not eligible for access. The nebulous policy creates uncertainty around internet access.
To encourage students’ access to free internet, Georgetown should standardize and make more transparent the process of accessing the university’s VPN.
The network has the benefit of bypassing geographic restrictions on internet access, including in countries with online censorship. With at least 34 study abroad programs in countries that have substantial internet censorship — including China and Russia — VPNs are critical to grant student access to free information for their academic pursuits.
Without a VPN, students studying abroad in China cannot even have basic access to Gmail and Google Drive. Such severe restrictions limit academic freedom and prevent students from doing meaningful research on information censored by their host country.
Despite the importance of a VPN, Georgetown’s website states that students may only access specific servers at the request of a staff or faculty member. Otherwise, the website states that there are no exceptions to make students eligible for VPN access.
However, students may access the VPN for university-specific business and when traveling abroad, Vice President for Information Technology Judd Nicholson wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Rather than placing the onus on students to discover they may be granted VPN access, the university should publicize specific criteria for student VPN access.
Providing students with the university VPN is common practice among Georgetown’s peer institutions. Institutions including The George Washington University and Harvard University both have explicit policies that grant students VPN access. Georgetown should emulate its peers in providing students with unfettered internet access.
Regardless of their geographical location, students should be provided the same access to resources they would otherwise have on campus.
For students who are studying abroad, VPN access is especially important to ensure the quality of their scholarship is not sacrificed because of a lack of resources. VPN access should also be granted to international students who are doing academic wok at home or other students who are traveling for academic purposes.
Though the university has an obligation to provide students with a VPN when necessary for academic work, Georgetown does have a reasonable interest to limit student use of the VPN to prevent excessive traffic on its VPN. To this end, the university should implement an application process for students to explain their need for the network. Before a student goes abroad, they could explain their academic need for VPN use and receive access for the duration of their trip.
Georgetown should ensure its students are not subject to foreign governments’ censorship as much as possible. Students must be afforded access to information as a foundation of their academic freedom. To preserve students’ academic freedom abroad, Georgetown should publicize a VPN policy and application.
The Hoya’s editorial board is composed of six students and chaired by the opinion editor. Editorials reflect only the beliefs of a majority of the board and are not representative of The Hoya or any individual member of the board.