Mechanisms for Reducing Computer-Based Harassment, Improper Use, and Incivility at MIT

MIT has an extensive distributed-computing environment for use by students, faculty, and staff. As part of this, the Athena Computing Environment provides about 500 public workstations for students to use distributed across over twenty public and departmental clusters* and two classrooms. These specially configured and equipped UNIX workstations can perform multiple tasks very fast, locally or using diverse servers in the environment, and display results using text and graphics in multiple windows. A subset of these capabilities, especially a Commons involving communications and access to networked information sources, is available on personal computers connected to MIT's network, which divide quite evenly between DOS/Windows and Macintosh computers.

The typical user of MIT's distributed computing environment simultaneously

For the most part all of this goes smoothly. By the spring of 1992, however, record usage levels had begun to uncover some problems. Three of these were especially troubling: harassment via electronic messages, displays on public workstations offending other users, and improper use of scarce public workstations for other than the intended academic work. These problems were troubling partly because they were going unresolved: the only avenues open to victims were formal Institute disciplinary mechanisms, and these were cumbersome and imposed major time and evidentiary burdens on complainants.

The Academic Computing Management Group, representing all Information Systems organizations involved with academic computing at MIT, discussed this problem among themselves, and with individuals from the offices of the Provost, the Dean for Student Affairs, and the Ombudsman. Out of these discussions grew a recognition that stopping harassment and improper use was sometimes more important than punishing offenders. And out of this recognition grew a simple set of mechanisms designed to stop harassment and improper use quickly.

The stopit mechanisms, as they came to be known, were based on a simple proposition: most offenders, given the opportunity to stop uncivil behavior without having to admit guilt, will do so. The stopit mechanisms thus were designed to do two things:

The overarching goal is just what the name suggests: to stop it.

Figure 1: The Stopit Poster

The first stopit mechanism is a poster whose text is in Figure 1. The poster is displayed prominently in all public computing facilities, and facsimiles appear in printed and online documents. The primary goals of the poster are two: to encourage victims who feel they are in danger to call Campus Police immediately, and to provide a clear "if you can't figure out what to do" path to information systems.

The second stopit mechanism is that path: the mailing address. Messages sent to stopit go to the senior directors in Information Systems involved with academic computing, who then make sure that users receive responses and that appropriate actions ensue. Responses to stopit messages are generally very quick, especially when the offense is great, since the stopits (as the Director-respondents are known) frequently check their mail.

Figure 2 displays some data on cases. Treating each incident as one case regardless of the traffic and response activity it generates, Figure 2 collects cases into three categories. "Use" comprises Athena and MITnet Rules of Use violations, such as tying up multiple workstations, reserving a machine with an illegal screensaver, or reconfiguring systems to permit remote access. "Offense" comprises diverse ways individuals harass or offend other individuals, including offensive mail or messages and offensive screen displays in public clusters. "Behavior" comprises assorted misbehaviors that don't fit the other two categories, such as eating in clusters or talking loudly in clusters to the detriment of working conditions for others.

Figure 2: Stopit Incidents, by Month and Type

In many cases the response to a stopit complaint is a standard response from a specific office: for example, chain-letter and forged-mail complaints go directly to the network Postmaster, who takes standard actions. The advantage is, users need not worry about who should receive their complaints; they simply write to stopit. As stopit precedents have accumulated, so have standard responses to typical offenses. Moreover, the field staff have become better attuned to standard responses, and often are able to handle complaints completely on the spot. This was very difficult before stopit gathered enough data to develop, test, and implement response policies. Standard responses and field-staff skills gradually have reduced the senior administrative overhead associated with stopit.

The third stopit mechanism is a carefully-structured standard note to alleged perpetrators of harassment, improper use, or other uncivil behavior. "Someone using your account," the note begins, "did [whatever the offense is]." The u.y.a. note (as this mechanism is known, for its introductory words) then explains why this behavior or action is offensive, or violates MIT harassment policy, or Rules of Use, or whatever. "Account holders are responsible for the use of their accounts. If you were unaware that your account was being used in this way," the note continues, "it may have been compromised. User Accounts can help you change your password and re-secure your account." Detailed directions to User Accounts follow. The note concludes with a short sentence: "If you were aware that your account was being used to [whatever it was], then we trust you will take steps to ensure that this does not happen again."

Two interesting outcomes ensue.

This is important: even though recipients concede no guilt, and receive no punishment, they stop.

But sometimes, especially where certain kinds of improper use such as reconfiguring machines or using restricted facilities are involved (there have been no harassment recidivists), perpetrators perpetrate again. Or they respond to the u.y.a. letter by contesting the policy in question. In these cases the fourth stopit mechanism comes into play: the individual is invited to discuss the matter with a senior Information Systems administrator. If the individual declines this invitation, it becomes more forceful: in some cases the user's account is temporarily frozen until her or she appears (but this only happens with a Director's approval).

In extreme cases, or if discussion fails to deter future misbehavior, the fifth stopit mechanism comes into play: the Institute's regular disciplinary procedures. Information Systems neither takes private action nor imposes internal punishments (such as denying accounts) outside of regular procedures. Instead, Information Systems files complaints on behalf (and with the consent) of victims, and then lets the MIT Committee on Discipline (or whatever organization is responsible) judge the case and impose penalties.

GA Jackson, Director of Academic Computing
MIT Information Systems
1 Amherst St, E40-359a
Cambridge MA 02139

(617) 253-3712 (voice)
(617) 258-8736 (facsimile)

* MIT calls its student computer facilities "clusters", since "computer lab" has the perhaps counterproductive connotation of a place where computers are taken apart and modified.