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Front page for The Stanford Daily – Web site’s online Facebook raises concerns – September 22, 1999 by Nadira Hira

Students meet with administrators to decide site’s future

By Nadira Hira
Contributing writer
Wednesday September 22, 1999

A meeting was held between representatives of various University departments and the three undergraduate creators of The Steamtunnels: Stanford’s Underground (http://steamtunnels.net/) Sept. 16 to discuss the inclusion of the Web site’s scanned Stanford Facebook photos and the concerns this raised for the administration.

The meeting resulted in the temporary removal of the Facebook component of the Web site, pending the further discussion currently scheduled for Sept. 23.

The students (Aaron Bell, Lawrence Gentilello, and Tuyen Truong) requested to comment under their screen names: Drunken Master, DJ Monkey and The Sultan (respectively).

The Web site’s features

The existence of the Web site was first brought to the attention of Dean of Students Marc Wais by Susan Tomaro, the director of New Student Orientation, who, according to Wais, was made aware of it by upperclass students.

According to Drunken Master, DJ Monkey and The Sultan, the three began the site as a response to the “stagnant social scene” on campus.

“We felt like we could provide a fresh, unfiltered voice and a great set of services that could liven things up for everybody,” said Drunken Master.

Prior to the student’ meeting with the administration, Steamtunnels included an online Facebook that could be searched by last name, first name, first and last name, and, in some cases, nicknames.  This component included photos scanned from the last four Facebooks and information about these students gleaned from the Whois directory.

Students said they found this useful.

“I used [the online Facebook] frequently during Sophomore College to remember people’s names and generally solidify name and face associations that are so easy to mix up when meeting so many new people,” said junior Joel Segre.

In addition, the Web site features a restaurant guide, an events calendar, a bulletin board, online radio stations of several genres and a comparison textbook shopper that allows students to compare the textbook prices of several retailers to obtain the lowest one.

Differing opinions

Assoc. Dean of Students Morris Graves first contacted Drunken Master about the Web site, citing propriety (copyright) and privacy concerns.

The administration set up a meeting for Sept. 16 with the three students involved.  There, said Wais, the administration requested that the students “shut down the Facebook component of the Web site as currently constructed, which they agreed to do.”

The students, according to DJ Monkey, did not feel as though they had any other choice.

“We feel like the University used strong-arm tactics to bully us,” he said.

Wais stressed that the request to shut down the Facebook component of the site was temporary, pending the outcome of discussions with the students.

“We informed the students that they could immediately initiate a new Facebook component of the Web site if each student consented to having his or her photo in the Web site, and then directly submitted a photo, any photo, to the Web site designers, who presumably will have some process in place to confirm that the submitter actually is that student,” he added.

The students question the necessity of this process, however, saying that the pictures are the property of the students themselves and, as such, the students should be able to approve the use of any photo for the Web site, including ones in the Facebook.  This issue is one currently being explored by the General Counsel.

Upon requesting that the Facebook component be removed from Steamtunnels, Wais cited the University’s three major concerns.

“First and foremost is the issue of student privacy,” he said.  “We believe students should be afforded the opportunity to exercise their right to consent or not consent before their pictures and accompanying personal information are put on the World Wide Web.”

The students contend that all the information was, in fact, standard directory information, as it was collected from existing Stanford directories, such as Whois.

Wais’ primary concern, however, was the use of student’ photographs on the site without their prior knowledge or explicit consent.  He noted that student pictures were not included on any of Stanford’s online directories.

“I think the issue of photographs is the main one,” he said.  “Photographs are so personally identifying.  Whois is something that will be looked at, but right now we’re really troubled by the photographs being put on the Web.”

Prior consent

Although the students recognized the need for prior consent and acknowledged that it should be incorporated into their process, they were adamant in the defense of their intentions and the measures they took to secure the product of those intentions.

DJ Monkey stated that the Web site designers used the “same secure methods that Stanford’s computer security specialists employ” to restrict access to their Web site to the Stanford community.

“Our Facebook is meant to empower students,” said The Sultan.  “Our online version gives each student 100 percent control of his or her picture.”

At this point, however, students do not explicitly sign off on the use of their pictures on the site, and they must first visit the Web site before they can remove their pictures.

There is a mechanism now on the site that asks for students’ permission to use their pictures.

“We are campaigning to collect everyone’s permission on the site right now,” the designers said.

Wais added that student safety is also a concern.

Risks involved

The Web page designers saw this risk as implicit in any use of Stanford Web sites by the Stanford community.

“If the administration is so paranoid about the security on the Web, then why is so much our our personal information, such as financial aid and grades, posted online on Axess?” they said.  “It is as easy for someone to transmit this information to an outside party as it is to send information from our site to the same party.”

Concerning safety, the group said, “We really did not think this was such a large issue, and we believed that we were generally following University guidelines.  Once students permit Stanford to put pictures in the Facebook, it seems they turn up everywhere for public to see: The Chaparral, dorm breezeways, dorm Web pages, I-Hum Web pages and more.”

When questioned about this, Wais said that students signed off on the use of Facebook pictures on such Web pages and that these pages were approved by the University Registrar on a case-by-case basis.

He also added that, when pictures are displayed in dorms or department buildings on campus, “…at least…they have signed off on it.”

“The people walking through these halls are generally people who are engaged in academic pursuit,” Wais said.  “The World Wide Web and such halls are two different scenarios.”

The Web site designers dispute this characterization of the situation altogether, again pointing out that their site is only accessible to the Stanford community, thereby making it analogous to breezeways and academic halls.

“We wholly support the University on this issue,” they said.  “For this reason, strict security measures were employed to ensure that only people in the Stanford halls had access to the site.”

Finally, concerning copyright, the Web site designers agreed that the University did have a copyright claim to the Facebook layout, but contested the University’s claim to the individual photos.

According to the designers, “The Facebook is a compilation of other people’s original works and photos which, be legal definition, the University does not own.”

Wais commented that this was an assertion made by the General Counsel based on their current interpretation and understanding of Stanford’s policy, but he stressed that this is something that the concerned parties are willing to discuss in the upcoming meeting this Sept. 23.

Questions about the University’s actions

Beyond their legal contentions, the Web site designers also question the University’s handling of this matter.

In reference to the meeting held on Sept. 16, The Sultan said, “[Wais] was very diplomatic, and we thought he handled the meeting well.  Some of the other administrators were much more antagonistic and threatening. “

“They threatened to block Internet access from Stanford computers to our site.  Can you say Big Brother?” continued DJ Monkey.

According to the Web site’s creators, the subject of legal action against them was introduced “not more than five minutes into the meeting and before discussions had really begun.”

Wais said that a representative of the General Counsel, Stanford’s body of legal advisors, did make a comment early in the meeting indicating that their could be legal ramifications for the Web site designers.

Of particular concern to the designers prior to the meeting was the e-mail titled “Alert – Web page for Facebooks,” which was sent on the afternoon of Sept. 15, to the resident assistant and resident fellow lists by Director of Residential Education Jane Camarillo.

“[Camarillo] sent an e-mail out to the RA and RF list implicating us as criminals before hearing our side of the story, and before the meeting even took place,” the designers said.

Parts of Camarillo’s e-mail discussed the scanning of Facebook pictures for use on Steamtunnels, saying, “While this action was well-intentioned, it was also illegal because the Facebook is copyright protected.  The ‘owner’ of the book is Stanford University and permission must be attained to reproduce it in any form.”

The Web site designers questioned this reasoning, but they said they were more disturbed by the fact that this e-mail went out to so many people before the administration had even spoken to the students formally.

Camarillo’s e-mail also stated, “If you are interested in pursuing the idea of developing a Facebook or a picture board for your house, you can use the pictures that you took during the in-house Draw (since students allowed you to take their picture for this purpose) or if you get the explicit permission of your first year students to use their picture in the Facebook to reproduce for the house purposes, then it is okay.”

Contrary to Wais’ assertion that the pages currently existing with student photos are approved individually, the Web site’s designers believe that this is not, in fact, the case.  The designers viewed Camarillo’s e-mail as an attempt to retroactively eliminate sites including Facebook pictures and to prevent new Web sites of this kind from being created in the coming weeks.

“[The administration] may have made reactionary measures to cover up their tracks,” the Web site’s designers stated.  “It is particularly surprising to us that an e-mail like Camarillo’s would have been necessary had the University at large been observing the policies the administration is now using against us.”

Camarillo could not be reached for comment.

Advising Associate positions

Of related significance, according to DJ Monkey and The Sultan, is the loss of their positions as AAs (Academic Advising Associates).  Though both had held these positions before with what they saw as a good degree of “success,” both were dismissed from their posts between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Sept 16, less than two hours before their meeting with administrators at noon.

“That was a big disappointment, because we’ve both been AAs in the past, and really enjoyed helping out the new freshmen,” they said.

When contacted, Lynn Freeman, the Peer Support Coordinator at the UAC, said, “Over the past week, I have replaced more than 10 AAs for missing all or parts of training.  Training is required for all Advising Associates, new and returning.

“Several students made arrangements prior to training to miss parts due to Sophomore College or taking a final from a summer course.  In all other cases, all training was required.  AAs that have been replaced over the past week were replaced for this reason and for no other reason.”

The Sultan, because of training for another campus position, did miss some AA training.  However he claims that he informed the pertinent staff members of this well ahead of time and feels strongly that his dismissal was linked to Steamtunnels.

According to DJ Monkey, he was initially told that he was losing his position because of illegal activities related to the Web site and its online Facebook.  When he asked about the loss of his position, he said he was told by Freeman that his RF wanted him removed, but, upon questioning his RF, he came to the conclusion that this was not the case.  DJ Monkey said he brought this up with Freeman and was then told that his dismissal was a matter of missed training.

Freeman did subsequently mention that, during her dismissal conversation with DJ Monkey, they did speak about the online Facebook, however, she made it clear that the Facebook issue had nothing to do with her decision.

Resolutions planned

Despite lack of resolution on this issue, all concerned parties agreed at the Sept. 16 meeting to postpone further discussion of the issue to later this week, after the demanding arrival of this year’s freshman.

“We saw that University officials were pre-occupied with Orientation, and we didn’t want to distract them during such a crucial time for this year’s freshmen, so we agreed to place a moratorium on our Facebook section until later this week, when discussions continue,” said the designers.

Wais cited the freshmen arrival as a reason for the University’s immediate action in the situation.

Read on for another Stanford Daily article written by Nadira Hira.

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