April 23, 2014

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What Was Blackboard Thinking?

Most businesses know that it’s wise to honor the values of their customers. So you’ve got to wonder what Blackboard was thinking when it sued to block a conference presentation last weekend.

Blackboard’s customers are colleges and universities. As Karl-Friedrich Lenz observes, these are organizations that hold freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry as central values. Seeking an injunction against both speech and inquiry, as Blackboard did, and making that injunction so broad, has got to rub many of Blackboard’s customers the wrong way.

Blackboard’s defensive and somewhat misleading press release may be a sign of the bind it has created for itself. The release implies that each Blackboard product either is physically secure, or relies on cryptography for protection. The two students, Billy Hoffman and Virgil Griffith, were reportedly going to say that the product in question used neither method of security, but was basically open to abuse by anyone who could unscrew a few screws. There could have been a debate about who was right, but Blackboard wouldn’t allow that to happen. Most observers will conclude, sensibly, that Blackboard tried to block that debate because it expected to lose it.

Like most censorship attempts, Blackboad’s strategy has backfired. They have only drawn attention to the content they tried to suppress, so that more Blackboard customers know about the students’ conclusion that Blackboard’s technology is insecure. All this, plus an affront to the values of Blackboard’s customers.

Come to think of it, Blackboard may have done a small service to educators after all – by providing an instructive example of the perils of censorship.