GRAND FORKS-North Dakota public universities have blocked websites containing child porn in an effort to promote a safer environment for learning.

The North Dakota University System implemented the measure Monday that will block web pages with child porn from being accessed via its institutions' networks. It's all part of an initiative that started at the University of North Dakota, University Police Chief Eric Plummer said.

"As you know, we've had a couple of high profile arrests at the institution over the last couple of years," he said. "We wanted to make sure we could address that."

About a year ago, Plummer and UND Chief Information Officer Madhavi Marasinghe started discussing strategies on how to promote safety and security at UND. The initiative turned into Safeguarding UND, which looks at ways to improve physical safety on campus and cybersecurity.

That led to a move by the NDUS to become a member of the Internet Watch Foundation, which has a list of websites that are often used for distributing child porn. If a person accesses one of those sites, a message will pop up explaining why the website was blocked. University staff will then be notified about the attempt.

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Prior to joining IWF, the university system had the ability to block content, NDUS Communications Director Billie Jo Lorius said. The system historically didn't block webpages "due to the difficulty of accurately identifying problematic content and the risk of blocking legitimate traffic," she wrote in an email.

"That is a vulnerability that we saw within our networking, that people could actually use our network platform to commit crimes," Plummer said. "We wanted to make sure we put things in place to prevent that from happening."

Lorius called the initiative a collaborative effort between Marasinghe, Plummer, UND and the university system.

Some have criticized universities that use the IWF list to block certain websites, Plummer said. Critics fear it will hinder researchers who need to access certain webpages, he said.

"There are legitimate uses for research," he said. "So when you start to talk about things that limit access to information in the academic realm, most people pull back."

Recent cases of child porn at UND may have helped the school and university system to join IWF, Plummer said. Three former UND employees-ex-Police Officer Bradley Meagher, former aviation professor Eric Hewitt Basile and Robert William Beattie, a former chairman of Family and Community Medicine-are serving prison sentences after being charged in federal court on child porn charges. Two men-Connor David Brennan and Noah Nicholas Gianfranceschi-were charged last year in Grand Forks District Court with child porn while they were attending UND.

Information technology support teams are allowed to give access to blocked content on a case-by-case basis if a person feels the website shouldn't be blocked or if they need to access the site for research or educational purposes, Marasinghe said.

"Then we can go through the process of identifying the need and give access just to that person to get their work done," she said.

Investigators also could follow up with people trying to access the websites, Plummer said, but the initiative is meant to be a proactive approach to preventing child porn crimes from happening.

"If somebody is going to try to do this type of illegal behavior, they're going to have to do it through ways that are not utilizing, or I would even say abusing, the state systems that we have in place," he said. "We just want to make sure we're preventing this type of access and protecting our community."