Intellectual Property

Student Bypasses Yale's Website Ban; Government Censorship May Be Next

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Banned Bluebook
Sean Haufler

Courtesy of Balaji Srinivasan, who made a big splash in Silicon Valley and beyond with calls for tech entrepreneurs to develop means of working around and otherwise escaping government control, comes news of a small-scale demonstration of his ideas at work in a confrontation between Yale students and university officials.

Yale has an online course catalog, Yale Blue Book, purchased from student originators. Two current students, Peter Xu and Harry Yu, developed an improved Website, YBB+, that proved very popular because of its lighter interface and the ability to sort classes according to standards important to undergrads. So, of course, the school shut the competitor down. And then technology came to the rescue, rendering the shutdown effort impotent.

Writes Ariel Kaminer at the New York Times:

The idea did not seem controversial at first: Peter Xu and Harry Yu, twin brothers who are seniors at Yale University, set out to build a better, more user-friendly version of the university's online course catalog. But as Mark Zuckerberg found when he decided to build a better version of Harvard's undergraduate student directory, these things can take on a life of their own.

Yale shut down the brothers' website last week, helping to turn a local campus issue into something of a civil rights cause. Now, after a few days of controversy, a similar tool is up and running, and it appears to be Yale that has gotten a schooling.

The brothers said they were tired of the university's "clunky" online catalog, which made it hard to see how students from previous semesters had evaluated courses. So in December 2012, Mr. Xu and Mr. Yu, both computer science majors, came up with their own version.

They called it Yale Blue Book +, or YBB+, a reference to the Yale Blue Book, a course selection website that other students had developed and sold to the school a couple of years ago.

"We wanted it to be faster to use," Mr. Xu said. On his site, he continued, "You can click on a course, you can see its description, you can see what other students have said about it — all in a few clicks." In particular, students could sort courses by numerical ratings given by students in previous semesters, and see what courses their Facebook friends were looking at.

Yale officials got bent out of shape and objected on a grab-bag of grounds that essentially boiled down to: "you didn't ask and we don't like it."

But…Students liked YBB+ (which was renamed CourseTable in an attempt to escape a trademark battle). They complained. And, more importantly, one of them did something that made the ban unenforceable.

Writes Yale student Sean Haufler:

What if someone made a piece of software that displays Yale's course evaluation data in a way that Yale disapproves of, while also (1) not infringing on Yale's copyrights or trademarks, (2) not storing any sensitive data, (3) not scraping or collecting Yale's data, and (4) not causing damages to Yale's network or servers? If Yale censors this piece of software or punishes the software developer, it would clearly characterize Yale as an institution where having authority over students trumps freedom of speech.

Guess what? I made it last night.

I built a Chrome Extension called Banned Bluebook. It modifies the Chrome browser to add CourseTable's functionality to Yale's official course selection website, showing the course's average rating and workload next to each search result. It also allows students to sort these courses by rating and workload. This is the original site, and this is the site with Banned Bluebook enabled (this demo uses randomly generated rating values).

Haufler's intention, he wrote, was to demonstrate that "Censorship through IP blocking and Deep Packet Inspection is not only unethical, it's also futile."

Now Mary Miller, the Dean of Yale College, concedes that "In retrospect, I agree that we could have been more patient in asking the developers to take down information they had appropriated without permission, before taking the actions that we did." She also allowed that Banned Bluebook "leapfrogs over the hardest questions before us."

Which is to say, it leapfrogs over the school's ability to even pretend to control of the situation.

Expect more such solutions to attempted exercises of power, on a larger scale, in the future.

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  1. Fuck ivy leagues. Hard to get in to, not hard to graduate from. Also, fuck he “big ten” or whatever the “flagship” state run youth storage facilities are called.

    Anyway, the best kind of course catalog is on paper or a pdf. Figure that shit out or drop the fuck out of college, dumbass.

    1. Anyway, the best kind of course catalog is on paper or a pdf. Figure that shit out or drop the fuck out of college, dumbass.

      To an extent, I agree with the paper catalog, just because it’s easier to flip around in physical reference material (for me) than to dig through bookmarks. PDF’s are a close second.

      1. One thing that electronic searches and catalogs have yet to duplicate is simple browsing through a paper book. Electronic searches are great if you know exactly what you are looking for, but I often find myself going back to paper catalogs when I am less sure of exactly what I need.

    2. the best kind of course catalog is on paper or a pdf. Figure that shit out or drop the fuck out of college, dumbass.

      And GET OFF MY LAWN!

    3. I suppose you want to wait until your appointed time to dial into a “telephone” system to try to register, too.

      1. Fuck that. Since the online system had errors that required an advisor’s override every time I tried to use it, after a couple of times I just started demanding to register in person.

        1. Hahaha, at my undergrad they would set up a bunch of tables in the gym for the various departments. When your scheduled registration time came around you’d run over to the gym, fight through everyone else trying to register and basically hope you ended up a full time student when it was over.

          1. They were actually still doing that at Cornell when I was a grad student there 7 or 8 years ago. I got paid to man those tables for the math department.

            My undergrad went from telephone to online while I was there.

          2. yep had that experience.
            i was always afraid i was going to find i had signed up for either experimental surgery, the navy, or both.

      2. Telephone systems are hilarious.

        GT had switched to entirely online registration by 1987. Phones. Lol, that is so 1970s.

      3. At my wife’s college, they had big pieces of paper with the names of courses on them laid out in a gym and students had to run and sign up on the paper. Students would be broken into groups and had assigned times when they could enter the gym. Actually, that may have been how they assigned dorms. Either way, I always laughed at it. Did I mention this was 2002 — 2006?

        1. That right there is some serious hack-proof registration. Nobody’s sending any bots to run to the gym and fake their signature anyway.

        2. Isn’t that a FERPA violation?

      4. My class in college was the first to use an online registration system and it worked pretty well. We still chose courses by looking through a book, but we got to find out right away on registration day if we got the courses we wanted.

    4. You punks have it so easy now.

      My college registration? Scan the catalog, fill out the sheet, making sure to have no 8 AM or Friday classes, and then walk around to all of the professors to get them to sign off. Then, stand outside the registration building for 8 hours and pray you won’t be wait listed.

      If you were lucky, very lucky, the computer system didn’t crash and waste your entire day.

      1. At Hopkins, they had M-T-W classes and Th-F classes. If you got all Th-F, you had a five day weekend. That was sweet.

        1. While that is very sweet, (MD was MWF or T-Th) the big party night at UMD was Thursday night, since half of the student body went home to Joisey and Lon Gisland every weekend.

        2. All T-Th classes was pretty good too. Then you sort of get two weekends every week.

    5. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Also, why don’t universities sublet this kind of work as homework to start with? Assign the work to your undergrads, and they pay YOU to do it. Win/win.

    I guess cutting overhead probably isn’t in their interest though…

    I’m surrounded by incompetence and laziness.

    1. It could be a good internship type project. Improve my university! Run it, then roll with the best.

        1. Exactly!

    2. “I guess cutting overhead probably isn’t in their interest though.”
      Except that Yale is in the forefront of unionbusting universities, generating strikes every few years.
      Stick to your ideology though!

  3. Who would have thought college students with smart phones found an alternate path on the internet.

  4. Peter Xu and Harry Yu, twin brothers who are seniors at Yale University

    Dick Zu, unfortunately, was the black sheep brother and is currently attending Harvard.

    1. I had a friend with two older sisters growing up. He and the oldest went to Yale, the “dumb” one went to Rice.

      1. Huh, I would have thought they’d have sent her to Brown.

        1. I dated a girl who went to Brown. Not very smart but a pro at regurgitating whatever the party line was at the time.

          1. A high school friend of mine is a political science professor at Brown. The kicker is that he’s a religious Christian conservative. I have to say I’m impressed at his ability to navigate what would be often considered a somewhat hostile environment, but he seems cool with it.

          2. “I dated a girl who went to Brown. ”
            Is that what the kids are calling it these days?

      2. I went to daycare, this was a long assed time ago, there were Asian twin girls whose names were Peach and Plum. True story.

        1. there were Asian twin girls whose names were Peach and Plum.

          You have my interest. Go on….

          1. That’s all I remember. I wonder what your life prospects are when you have such a strange name and it is a counterpart to your twin’s strange name. They probably changed them by now.

            1. When I was a kid we’d sometimes go over to my aunt’s house for the afternoon. Her neighbor’s kids, fraternal twins, were named, no kidding, Ham and Cheese.

            2. I wonder what your life prospects are when you have such a strange name and it is a counterpart to your twin’s strange name

              Summon Mothra?

            3. It’s not all that uncommon in Japanese families to have themed names like that in a family. Two girls in a family named Momoko and Umeko translates as Peach and Plum.

              1. What do Fuk Yu and Fuk Me translate to?

              2. momoko and umeko would be awesome names in the US.

        2. Did they have different last names?

        3. The French equivalent to the name “Plum” is “Prune”. True.

      3. If she was Asian that is mildly surprising as we have reverse affirmative action for Asians (obviously wouldn’t be surprised if Yale does too). This was hilariously depicted in King of the Hill.

      4. “I’ve had enough of your Vassar bashing, young lady!”

        1. “Nasty business, that zero. Naturally, Harvard’s doors are now closed to you, but I’ll pass your file along to [snickers] Brown.”

        2. “Princeton is a trade school. The only two places that matter are Harvard & Yale.”

          1. “At Harvard, men are trained to rule the world. At Yale, to ignore it.”
            -Vanity Fair, ca. 1910 or thereabouts

    2. Yeah, twin brothers with different last names? What, was one farmed out for adoption?

      1. Maybe the mother got remarried in the midst of giving birth.

      2. I’m guessing that Yu and Xu are both valid transliterations of their family name.

  5. Now Mary Miller, the Dean of Yale College, concedes that “In retrospect, I agree that we could have been more patient in asking the developers to take down information they had appropriated without permission, before taking the actions that we did.”

    Yeah, I guess that “because we can” justification that becomes second nature to everyone in authority didn’t work out so well in this case, huh?

    1. Their first response is always “BANNED!”

      It’s only when they figure out that they have no actual authority, relevance or even input on the matter that they resort to begging.

  6. I built a Chrome Extension called Banned Bluebook.

    Along with

    Haufler’s intention, he wrote, was to demonstrate that “Censorship through IP blocking and Deep Packet Inspection is not only unethical, it’s also futile.”

    I’m not sure about that. Yale could make their site only work with IE, thus making his chrome extension irrelevant. But I also admit I’m not clear on the upshot here. Has Yale admitted defeat because they’re not scraping data, but merely re-presenting the data Yale already provides? If so, bully to the developers, and bugger off Yale admin.

    1. I’m not sure about that. Yale could make their site only work with IE, thus making his chrome extension irrelevant

      Brilliant! Subvert the effort by making the service completely unusable!

      1. “Brilliant! Subvert the effort by making the service completely unusable!”

        Leave O-Care out of this!

      2. Brilliant! Subvert the effort by making the service completely unusable!

        From my reading of the article, that’s kind of where the whole thing started.

    2. Yale could make their site only work with IE, thus making his chrome extension irrelevant.

      Isn’t it pretty easy to spoof the browser? I suppose it would deter most people who aren’t aware or can’t be bothered.

      1. Yes and yes.

      2. I liked how some kids got around Cisco Clean Asshole Agent’s retarded login requirements every time they turned on their computer, by getting Clean Asshole Agent to think that their operating system was Linux rather than Windows.

    3. They’re just skinning the data that Yale is sending to the browser, essentially. Just like Reasonable will get between what is actually sent to the browser and you, this does the same.

      Switching to just IE would be an incredibly stupid move. Not only would they have to actively break the site for any other browser, it would make it shitty in IE too. That would be a classic cutting off your nose to spite your face move. I’m not saying I’d put it past them, but it’s in the deep end of stupid.

  7. A couple of foreigns where I went to college set up an online career networking system for engineering students. They were even pretty successful setting up seminars and webinars and getting people to come out to the middle of nowhere to give talks and interview people.

    The school pushed them out of on campus promotion and shut down their “official” student organization because people stopped using the school’s own shitty career service that a bunch of dumb grad students in business and humanities were handling.

    The career service’s setup is horrible. I refused to use it just because they wouldn’t even let me set up an account until I submitted a resume including my GPA and their preferred shitty formatting. I won’t give out my GPA or transcripts until some place specifically asks for them. And I formatted my resume the way I liked it after I saw how badly some company’s automatic upload software fucked one up that I gave them.

    1. and to think people say universities aren’t businesslike.

  8. Look, there’s a big difference between data presentation and data ownership. Appropriating a term above, “skinning” the data does not require any ownership. BUT, and this his huge, the problem is that unless you can guarantee a data delivery contract from the data provider, the “skin” can be rendered inoperable quite easily. Then you end up in a war of attrition…that’s unlikely to be even worth waging in first place. Generally, data providers don’t really care about alternative presentations…but they may also not care on keeping the delivery contract open and backwards compatible.

    Data OWNERSHIP is an entirely different beast. Ownership issues come down to two things:

    1) Ensuring data integrity.
    2) Collecting usage feeds.

    Ownership rights can be very valuable. So ensuring that third parties don’t dilute your brand value by reducing the quality of your product, and enabling your ability to collect revenue, are both extremely important to the owners of data.

    So this whole “censorship” argument is nonsense. It’s not about the ability to print. It’s about the ability to redistribute property owned by another.

  9. it would clearly characterize Yale as an institution where having authority over students trumps freedom of speech.

    How naive of him to think anything otherwise. I’d be surprised if this is not explicitly spelled out in large red letters in the student handbook.

  10. “Why go to college? Why study night school?”

  11. Just curious how Sean Haufler made this piece of software without scraping or collecting Yale’s data?

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