Memo for faculty and instructional staff concerning the legal, privacy, safety and security impacts of our online learning model:
The global pandemic has forced us to radically transform the way we work and teach. Home, wherever that is in the world, has become our new classrooms. As we adjust to this new reality, there is a new risk for some of our students, who reside in countries where topics we study in our classrooms may be legally prohibited. The technologies we use to interact with our students may contain technical vulnerabilities that weaken our privacy protections or increase the likelihood of digital surveillance. Faculty and instructional staff cannot be expert on these prohibitions or technologies, and nor should we change what we teach to potentially avoid violation of a foreign law. Doing so would violate the University’s Statement on Freedom of Expression and Statement of Institutional Purpose However, we do have a duty to inform our students about the risks of international online learning so that they can make appropriate decisions about which courses they choose to take, and how they conduct themselves. Attached to this memo is a recommended inclusion for your course syllabus.
The Statement on Freedom of Expression (adopted by the Governing Council, May 28, 1992)1 holds that the “essential purpose of the University is to engage in the pursuit of truth, the advancement of learning and the dissemination of knowledge. To achieve this purpose, all members of the University must have as a prerequisite freedom of speech and expression, which means the right to examine, question, investigate, speculate, and comment on any issue without reference to prescribed doctrine, as well as the right to criticize the University and society at large.” The Statement further notes that “an institution where unorthodox ideas, alternative modes of thinking and living, and radical prescriptions for social ills can be debated contributes immensely to social and political change and the advancement of human rights both inside and outside the University.” The Statement on Freedom of Expression calls all members of the University community to uphold and protect these values in their work.
The Statement of Institutional Purpose (adopted by the Governing Council, October 15, 1992)2, positions the University of Toronto as an institution “dedicated to fostering an academic community in which the learning and scholarship of every member may flourish, with vigilant protection for individual human rights, and a resolute commitment to the principles of equal opportunity, equity and justice.” These values remain just as important during a global public health emergency. The Statement of Institutional Purpose is a powerful reminder that faculty and instructional staff should not feel compelled to change or alter course content that may contain material that other nation-states deem illegal or controversial, or that such states may censor. A particular challenge concerns students accessing their courses from China. As many of you know, in order to provide access to UofT resources for students residing in mainland China, the University of Toronto has entered into an arrangement with Alibaba for a VPN (Virtual Private Network) service. However, Alibaba is a Chinese company, and all Chinese companies are required to operate in accordance with China’s Cyber Security Laws. This arrangement means that there is an additional inherent risk of surveillance for mainland China students using Alibaba’s VPN, or any network solution. To date, and this is of critical importance, Alibaba will have access to our students’ credentials for accessing University of Toronto resources. This poses an additional significant risk to our students and faculty engaging in coursework and research from China.
In addition to providing guidance to students so that they can adjust their course of study if need be, we also recommend all students increase their online security awareness. The following links are provided to share with students.