By Ian Swanson
Herald Staff Writer
UND is using technology to fight an Internet-based attack.
For months, a Florida-based Web site owned by a dismissed School of Medicine student has called UND a "fraudulent and deceptive institution" while posting attacks on individual administrators and faculty members.
Now those who find that Web site on a search engine will see another Web site responding to that criticism. The second site is sponsored by UND and was created by a team of UND staff members and students.
"We want to have some defense out there," said UND editor Jan Orvik, who is in charge of UND's Web site.
The Florida Web site that criticizes UND is registered to Vivian Nelson, a former student dismissed from UND nearly a decade ago. After her dismissal, Nelson filed a lawsuit against UND that was thrown out of court.
Axes to grind
Material on Nelson's Web site appears to have been written by at least two students with axes to grind against the university.
Though it includes information on some legitimate issues at UND, such as the school's nickname and low faculty salaries, Herald stories referenced on Nelson's Web site are printed in out-of-context excerpts and are linked to the Web site's home page with sensational headings.
Some claims are dubious. For example, no story or evidence backs up the heading, "Possibly hundreds of UND women are raped each year." *
UND officials say parts of Nelson's Web site clearly libel individual university employees, and they've been concerned about it for some time.
"We regret that this is the way that people seem to want to resolve issues that frankly have already been resolved," said UND School of Law Dean Jeremy Davis, who serves as the university's general counsel.
Davis said he often gets indignant calls about the site but his hands have been tied for two reasons.
First, a federal statute prohibits UND from releasing information from Nelson's files that might clarify issues on the Web site.
Second, individuals can sue for libel, but institutions cannot. That means UND can't sue anyone connected to the Web site for damages.
Individuals mentioned on the site, however, can sue for damages, and Grand Forks attorney Bill McKechnie said he expects to file a lawsuit against the company that hosts the Web site as early as next week on behalf of one UND faculty member.
But it's tougher for organizations to defend themselves. Owners of a pornographic Web site gave their address a name similar to the White House's official Web site to lure in unsuspecting visitors. For years, the White House has unsuccessfully sought to get rid of the pornographic site.
UND launches site
On Dec. 23, UND launched a Web site to respond to Nelson's.
The school's method of response is one example of how a company or public entity attacked in the Wild West-like world of the Web can defend itself.
Search engines on the Web read meta tags included in html coding when conducting a search. UND used nearly identical meta tags to Nelson's Web site in creating its response. That means people who find Nelson's Web site on a search will also see UND's response.
UND's site includes a message from UND President Charles Kupchella and directs visitors to the UND home page.
Kupchella's message in part reads: "The university states emphatically that the accusations found on a Web site attacking various units and individuals are false and/or unfounded and defamatory. The site in question was established by a disgruntled former student.
"It is the policy and practice of the university that all students receive proper consideration and due process in accordance with established university rules and guidelines in disputed matters such as those described at the Web site."
Orvik worked with the UND computer center, the North Dakota Higher Education network and UND students to create the site. It was registered with Network Solutions and comes up only on search engines that list Nelson's site.
For example, the Yahoo! search engine lists Nelson's Web site as a person page. That means it doesn't come up if you do a search for North Dakota or UND. Neither does UND's response to Nelson's Web site.
On the Altavista search engine, a search for UND will also produce Nelson's site. Listed immediately below Nelson's site is UND's response.
"We don't want our site to come up if they haven't seen (Nelson's) site," Orvik explained. "We're only registering with the search engines where it appears."
* Related Article UND: Women -- possibly hundreds -- are raped each year according to those who assist victims.