In July/August 1993, Wired ran an article on Multi-User Dungeon game playing, written by Kevin Kelly and Howard Rheingold. The contents page description of this otherwise excellent article commented that MUDs "are so popular that educators are alarmed. Australia has even banned them." I was surprised and embarrassed to find this statement in Wired. Surprised, because as an Australian who has spent two years making a cultural study of MUD use, I know perfectly well that they are not banned in my country. Embarrassed, because I have the awful feeling that I may have been at least partially responsible for starting this rumour.
And a persistent rumour it is. Perhaps I am oversensitised to the topic, but it seems that hardly a week goes by without my finding it being repeated. I find shreds of this rumour on mailing lists, questions about it Usenet newsgroups, and on the 16th of July I even found it repeated in the Melbourne newspaper The Age! This article is an attempt to stem the rumour.
Let me start by simply stating that there is no nation-wide ban on MUDs in Australia. There are, however, bans or restrictions on MUD usage at some Australian Internet sites, just as there are at other sites around the world.
Most people who have Internet access within Australia get that access through the Australian Academic and Research Network. AARNet, as described in their acceptable use policy (the file aarnet-acceptable-use-policy.txt, at the same site, appears to be an older version since some of its clauses are superseded by the more recent affiliate.txt), is:
a private telecommunications network owned and operated by the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee (AVCC) as a common service provided to the member institutions of the AVCC, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and other organisations who have entered into an AARNet Affiliate Membership Agreement with the AVCC.
AARNet does not operate the only Australian link to the rest of the Internet. Several commercial organisations pay for their own links. AARNet does, however, own the most widely used link. If you are an Australian university student or employee, if you work for the CSIRO, if you get Internet access through the Australian Public Access Network Association or through a commercial provider such as Dialix, or if you work for any of the 500 companies and government departments which have AARNet Affiliate Membership, then you are getting access to the Internet through AARNet. Consequently it is AARNet's policies that I will describe.
AARNet's acceptable use policy is quite simple. It says that the "primary function of AARNet is to support the open academic and research enterprise of Australia." Network traffic which is specifically permitted under the terms of the AUP includes traffic relating to the national academic and research enterprise and related commercial traffic, traffic related to the administrative activities of the member organisations of AARNet and their institutional support services, and traffic originating from peer academic and research networks which conforms to the originating networks' acceptable use policies. The only use of the network which is specifically forbidden is that which is illegal or fraudulent, including any activities prohibited under the Australian Commonwealth Government Telecommunications Act of 1989.
These terms are very broad. They simply mean that, provided it isn't illegal, AARNet members can use the network's facilities for any educational, academic, or research-related purposes, broadly defined to include administrative, support and commercial activities. Just how these definitions are implemented is left up to each individual AARNet Member or Affiliate to decide. As far as MUDs go, if any site wishes to define them as educational, they are permissible. Peter Saalmans, AARNet's General Manager, had this to say about the status of MUDs in Australia when I asked him about it in email on July 18th:
... policies regarding access, use, charging etc, are set by the relevant institution. A university is quite entitled to ban MUD games if it wants to--it is not a matter for the AVCC or AARNet to decide. Each AARNet affiliate member (i.e., non-university) has agreed to a set of conditions of use and an AUP, but these do not exclude playing games over the network.So a lecturer at an Australian university could legitimately set his students the project of building and running a MUD. The Head of a university department could, if she decided that using MUDs would be a good way to introduce students to computers, have a MUD set up for that purpose. When I was writing my Masters thesis on MUDs, I was free to use the University of Melbourne's computing and network facilities to connect to as many MUDs as I liked. Conversely, any university or AARNet affiliate member is free to ban MUD usage if they feel that MUDs are a waste of resources and time. The point is that it is up to each institution to decide their own policy. There is no nation-wide policy on MUDs. Some individual sites have banned them; some have not. Some universities will cheerfully suspend a student's account if that student is found MUDing. Others have set up MUDs for their students to experiment with. Some commercial service providers are quite happy to have their paying users spend as much time as they wish telneting to any MUD that takes their fancy. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.
So much for the substance of this rumour. But where did it come from? Here I must confess--I have the horrible feeling that I may have been at least one of the sources of this rumour.
Back a few years ago, The Australian Academic and Research Network was connected to the rest of the Internet via a 256kbit satellite link to the United States. By late 1991, this link had become quite inadequate. It was almost always congested, and during the middle of the day it was virtually unusable. AARNet planned to upgrade the link to 512kbit in February 1992. In order to try to keep traffic manageable until then, an unofficial request to minimise international traffic was circulated amongst network administrators at AARNet sites. In the ensuing discussion amongst these administrators, someone pointed out that statistics from the international gateway routers showed that more than 10% of traffic was taken up by telnet sessions to "miscellaneous" port numbers. It was suggested that this was an indication of rampant MUD usage. It was further suggested that a good way to cut down on traffic would be to put a temporary ban on MUDs. Many of AARNet's member institutions acted on this suggestion.
By a complete coincidence, around the same time that this was happening, a student at Melbourne University posted an announcement about his new MUD to several Usenet newsgroups. One of the university's network people noticed the post, and responded by cutting the machine on which the MUD was running off the network. There followed a huge argument and a great deal of acrimony. As it turned out it was, as these things tend to be, just a case of lack of communication. The student who was running the MUD had gotten his system administrator's permission to do so, and was not aware that he had done anything wrong. The sysadmin wasn't aware of any problem, and was surprised to find that his machine had suddenly been cut off the net. The network administrators were understandably upset that, just when they were trying to cut traffic down, someone had decided to publicly advertise something which would almost certainly send traffic through the roof.
It was about two weeks before this machine was reconnected to the network. Now, this machine just happened to be one which was used by a lot of people, including me. Many people were unable to get part of their work done while the machine was inaccessible. I was one of those affected. I was also, at that time, writing a thesis on MUDs, and for a short while was very worried about the future and status of my project. Accordingly I sent (from another account) some angstful email to several overseas colleagues who were also interested in the cultural aspects of MUDs.
Unfortunately, some of the people I emailed passed the information on to several other people, and even to several mailing lists. To my consternation, I began to receive email from total strangers, asking for more information about the "ban on MUDs in Australia" and expressing concern that Australian network managers were "pulling the network plug on any machine from which any student so much as connects to a MUD."
My concerns about my project turned out to be unfounded. The mixup at Melbourne University was sorted out, the machine in contention was reconnected to AARNet, and I got the Head of my Department to write a letter to anyone it may have concerned explaining that I had official academic permission to connect to MUDs. I have since finished my thesis. AARNet's circumstances have also changed. The international link has long since been upgraded. These days it is a 1.5Mbps (1.5 megabits per second) link via fibre optic undersea cable, and is scheduled to be upgraded to 3Mbps before the end of 1994. This is not to say, however, that all the institutions which decided to ban MUDs back in 1991 have since lifted their ban. Many found that the ban had more benefits than simply cutting down on international traffic. Many found that user complaints about crowded terminal laboratories and congested modem pools dropped to zero once MUDs were banned, and decided that they were on to a good thing. Other institutions have returned to a policy of letting users do whatever they like, on the principle that exploration and experiment are an important aspect of a good education. Others follow this principle further, and specifically allow MUDs to be used from or run on their facilities. Others have decided on a compromise. For instance, several universities have set up machines on which users are allowed to do whatever they want during off-peak hours.
So, to reiterate: there is no nation-wide ban on MUDs in Australia. There are, however, bans or restrictions on MUD usage at some Australian Internet sites, just as there are at sites all over the world. Other organisations allow their network users to do whatever they like. The rumour about the ban is just that--a rumour. While not completely unfounded, it is definitely an exaggeration, and based on circumstances which are several years out of date.
Elizabeth Reid is a doctoral student in the Communication Studies Department at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia. Her Honours Thesis on IRC and Masters Thesis on MUDs, written at the University of Melbourne, are online.