• 01.27.14

Yale’s David And Goliath Tech Showdown Bodes Well For Data Freedom

How a handful of student coders subdued an administration making a fuss over copyright.

Yale’s David And Goliath Tech Showdown Bodes Well For Data Freedom
[Image: Flickr user Erik (HASH) Hersman]

Yale University has a new hero. He’s not a president, supreme court justice, or even an athlete. And to most, he may not even seem especially heroic, but Sean Haufler, senior computer science major, stood up to the giant that is the Yale administration, aimed his slingshot at the monster’s eye, and the monster blinked (excuse the mixed mythological metaphor).


If you haven’t been following, two Yale students, twin brothers Peter Xu and Harry Yu, put up a website called YaleBlueBook+ (or YBB+) that allowed undergraduates to choose and schedule their courses using any device on the network. It had a friendlier interface than the officially sanctioned application, and it also gave students more complete access to course evaluations.

Undergraduates started using the new, superior app, and the administration responded by demanding changes. The brothers complied, but the administration, unsatisfied, blocked the site from the Yale network and threatened disciplinary action. This was all spelled out quite openly in a letter from the Dean of Yale College, Mary Miller, to the community.

Another programmer on campus named Sean Haufler saw what was happening and decided he could build a similar tool into a Chrome extension, which the university wouldn’t be able to block.

“When I heard that (YBB+) was blocked, I was in disbelief,” says the mildly spoken Haufler. “Then I saw Dean Miller’s letter; it was vague and some students felt that it was condescending.” Haufler did what any self-respecting technology geek would do, he got together with a friend to vent.

“The pattern of actions made the reasoning sound inconsistent with their actual intent. First they said it infringed Yale’s trademark. Then they said the data was used improperly. The only somewhat justified claim was a possible copyright issue. We thought, what if software existed that didn’t violate copyright? That’s when the idea for a Chrome extension occurred to me.”

Adding functionality to a browser legally displaying Yale’s pages couldn’t violate trademark, wasn’t using the data, and wouldn’t infringe copyright. It didn’t matter that Haufler had never written a browser extension before. That seemed like the easy part, and in about 12 hours, he had a working extension with all the functionality of the blocked site.


The hard part was writing the blog entry Haufler used to launch his extension. “The code was more of a thought experiment, but the essay had to be bulletproof.” He spent twice as long on the essay, sought feedback from numerous friends, and even worked on the text with one of his professors, Brad Rosen. Rosen has BA and MA computer science degrees from Yale, and a Harvard law degree. He’s a lecturer at Yale College and he teaches “Law, Technology, and Culture.”

The blog post went up last Sunday at 8:00 a.m. Haufler worried that he could be dragged in front of the disciplinary committee, and that they might suspend him for “defiance.” But his post went viral, hit the top of Reddit, and had over 500,000 page views within 24 hours. He knew that this was turning into a PR disaster for Yale, and he felt safe.

By Monday evening at 7:00 he was safe. A second open letter from Dean Miller went out to the community saying administration would take no further action. Haufler’s Chrome extension continues to work.