Leaving Education IT to clueless politicians

How many politicians does it take to cripple a university computer network? Do you really have to ask?
Written by Marc Wagner, Contributor

Well, they're at it again!  The proposed new law is called "The Curb Illegal Downloading on College Campuses Act of 2007 (H.R. 1689)" and it would provide Department of Education funding for anti-piracy software.  (See Bill would free colleges to buy anti-piracy software.)  Sound good?  Well, think again!  The bill's sponsor Representative Ric Keller of Florida tells us:

"Illegal downloading of music and movies on college campuses is harming their computer networks by consuming a huge amount of education-related bandwidth and exposing them to viruses," Keller said in a statement.

True enough if Education IT makes no effort to mitigate the risk to its network but in response to this problem:

A 2005 EDUCAUSE survey indicated that 73 percent of institutions surveyed shape network bandwidth by type of traffic to limit possible illegal P2P activity. Vaughn said this type of filtering is more effective in identifying large movie files than smaller music files. (Source: Internet News.)

This approach mitigates the very issue Representative Keller calls to our attention and still protects the university network without jeopardizing legitimate use of peer-to-peer technology.  The telling part of this entire proposal is this (quoting Internet News again.):

"Keller's proposal is in response to pressure from the music industry to curb illegal copying that the industry claims is rampant. More than half of all college students still download music and movies illegally, according to the University of Richmond's Intellectual Property Institute."

Keller's solution is for universities to use Department of Education money for expensive filtering software to attack the problem.  (You must wonder if the music industry is taking a cut of the profits from that software.) 

Of course, anyone with IT experience understands that filtering software is notorious for false positives.  This may be deemed acceptable (even desirable) in an environment where protecting minors from exploitation is the overriding concern but in a university environment, where students are old enough to vote and can be held accountable (by the institution as well as the authorities) for their illegal actions, the impact of institutional filtering on academic freedom, can be profound. 

Why?  Because it denies individuals (faculty and students alike) access to information which may be legal for them to use -- regardless of the copyright status of the material.  (The Fair Use provisions of U.S. copyright law, for instance, permit substantial educational access to copyrighted material.) 

In the end, while it is the university's responsibility to advise students of their legal obligations, and to enforce a code of ethics in order to protect its resources and it students, they have no obligation to serve the interests of the recording industry. 

On the other hand, protecting academic freedom from any form of censorship in the name of "protection" is among the university's most important responsibilities.

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