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Tear Down This Wall

Love & War

By Richard S. Lee

There's a well-known problem with the FAS student network. Namely, it's slower than Storrow Drive after a Sox game. Unfortunately, the proposed solution stands to benefit only the technically inclined at the expense of everyone else.

Recently, large increases in "outgoing" traffic on the FAS network--that is, traffic that originates when users from the outside world retrieve data from student computers within the network--has led to a congestion of sorts. File-sharing is one prominent source of such traffic; students who share their music collection through Napster utilize bandwidth even when they aren't the ones who are actively downloading. The same holds true for hosting a website or FTP server. Since bandwidth is a finite resource, it acts in many ways like a highway. Increases in traffic lead to congestion, which in turn leads to a general slowdown and lots of angry users.

Earlier this week, Harvard Arts and Sciences Computer Services (HASCS) presented a comprehensive, three-pronged solution to the problem. The first two parts of the plan--educating users about responsible bandwidth use and improving the network infrastructure over time--will do much to alleviate traffic in the long run.

But it's the third part of the plan that's most worrisome. According to HASCS, the FAS network will soon be placed behind a broad "firewall" that would prevent the outside world from accessing data on students' computers. Ostensibly, HASCS plans to carve out certain exceptions so that the wall will be "transparent" for everyday usage. Instant-messaging and file-downloading, for example, will be unaffected. For students with more specialized computing needs, attending a short educational session about network usage will be enough to be exempt from the firewall altogether.

So what's the big deal? The problem is that putting computers behind a firewall is like taking your 6-year-old son to a petting zoo and telling him he can look at, but not touch, the turtles in the tank.

The Internet, as a medium, is inherently two-way. Hosting a private server so that I can access my personal files remotely, running a public video game server so that I can shoot virtual rockets at my buddies and placing a webcam to show streaming video of my roommate's goldfish--these are all as much part of "the Internet" as browsing the web or leeching music. Indeed, these days, new personal computers come with free space to host a website. The Internet's potential as a means of obtaining information is great, but its potential as a means of self-expression and building community through participation is just as vast.

According to HASCS, the firewall is a content-neutral filter in the interests of limited bandwidth. But in reality, it implicitly suggests that certain types of network usage are somehow "less important" that others. For example, a firewall would allow a student to download the trailer for Star Wars: Episode II, but not allow that student to share the same file with others. But, for the larger online Star Wars community, both actions are equally important. A more "academic" example might be open-source software, which depends on a unique kind of active, community-wide participation. A firewall, however, adopts the misguided narrow view that--for the majority of us--the Internet is only valuable as a one-way street.

Allowing individual student exemptions only complicates the problem. For one thing, it rests on the assumption that only a small minority of students will actually take advantage of the exemption--if every student asked to be placed in front of the firewall, the policy would do nothing to alleviate network congestion.

In reality, those who ask for the exemption will be the technically-inclined, who will know when the firewall interferes with their online activities. And so, while the digerati will have access to all the Internet has to offer, the rest of us will have access to only what HASCS thinks is important. And, as new applications rapidly emerge--applications that will take advantage of the Internet in ways we currently can't imagine--those of us behind the firewall will be forced to wait, with baited breath, until higher powers allow us to partake in the revolution.

If not a firewall, then what? For starters, HASCS might do well to place more urgency on improving the network's infrastructure.

"At present, Harvard's network infrastructure is incredibly insufficient," says Michael S. Vernal '01, who is also a teaching fellow for Computer Science 244: "Advanced Network Design Projects." According to Vernal, the FAS network is connected to the outside world via a single 100mbps (megabits-per-second) pipe. Each of the network's 12,000 connections shares this bandwidth. Says Vernal: "If one-third of the undergraduate population was using the FAS network at the same time, each student would be connected at the speed of a 56.6kbps modem." That's the connection speed you'd expect of your mom's AOL connection, not of a prestigious academic institution.

In the end, a firewall might do much to alleviate the current crises in network bandwidth. But at most, it should be in place only until HASCS has time to implement long-term education campaigns and infrastructure improvements. A permanent firewall on the FAS network is not just at odds with this University's commitment to academic freedom. It would hide away a vast chunk of the Internet from those of us who stand to learn from it the most.

Richard S. Lee '01 is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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