Politicos threaten schools over campus piracy

Members of Congress threaten new laws if universities don't adopt measures to block the transfer of copyrighted content.
Written by Anne Broache, Contributor
WASHINGTON--Politicians on Tuesday threatened to enact new laws if universities don't do more to prevent their students from unlawfully swapping music, movies and other copyrighted files on campus networks.

At the latest in what has become a multiyear series of hearings focused on university campus piracy, members of the U.S. House of Representatives' Science and Technology Committee said college administrators must seriously consider using not only educational campaigns but also technological filters to reduce illicit file swapping among students.

"Illegal file sharing isn't just about royalty fees," committee chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) said at the hearing, which lasted a little more than an hour. "It clogs campus networks and interferes with the educational and research mission of universities."

Relatively cheap broadband connections and readily available digital media works have made it easier and more tempting than ever to share copyrighted content illegally, said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), the committee's ranking member. "This rampant disregard for copyright law needs to end," he told the panel, which included administrators from the University of Chicago, Illinois State University, Arizona State University and the University of Utah.

"So long as the right thing remains more daunting, awkward and unsatisfying than the wrong thing, too many people will do the wrong thing."
--Greg Jackson, CIO, University of Chicago

The problem in policing Internet connections is, however, that besides April Fools' jokes like the omniscience protocol, it's hardly easy for a network provider to detect which packets are carrying illegal copyrighted material and which are not. About the best universities can do is measure the amount of information transmitted, which might indicate unlawful content--or might not, because there are many legitimate academic uses for bandwidth-saturating activity. And encrypted data can make any kind of filtering task near-impossible.

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), also a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which writes copyright laws, suggested Congress should withhold funding from universities if they don't police their networks adequately. Universities receive tens of billions of dollars a year in federal research money, and the Department of Education handed out $82 billion in 2007 in new grants and loans to students.

"We're spending a good deal of federal resources in terms of helping universities with their technological improvements, directly and indirectly," Feeney said. "Is it responsible for a Congress that wants to protect intellectual property rights to continue to fund network enhancements for universities if some of those enhancements are indirectly being used in fact to promote intellectual property theft?" (That seemed to be a reference to the Internet2 project, funded in part by taxpayers.)

Tuesday's hearing comes as both politicians and entertainment industry representatives have continued to pressure universities to crack down on perceived piracy problems. The Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America sent letters in late April to the presidents of 40 universities in 25 states, asking them to halt their students' use of programs that allow them to trade files against their schools' local area networks while skirting the public Internet.

And last month, the leaders of the Judiciary Committee, including longtime copyright crackdown advocates Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.), sent letters to 19 universities considered to be the top piracy offenders, asking a number of questions about the policies they have in place and threatening to consider congressional action if their answers were unacceptable.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), also a member of both committees, cited years-old figures from his alma mater, Stanford University, that 80 percent of the campus' bandwidth was being used for file sharing. "To say file sharing on university campuses does not drive up the cost of education is just flat-out false," he said. "The more we can do to have the technology to keep this from happening in the first place, the better off students will be."

The cost of file sharing
Charles Wight, associate vice president for academic affairs and undergraduate studies at the University of Utah, said his school had saved $1.2 million in bandwidth costs and about $70,000 in personnel costs since implementing a two-pronged approach to rooting out file sharing three years ago. He said the university's information security office employs a combination of continuous monitoring of its networks for high-bandwidth users and runs software made by a company called Audible Magic, which is designed to match and block the exchange of copyrighted files through audio "fingerprinting," on its student residence networks.

Arizona State University Chief Technology Officer Adrian Sannier reported success in reducing illegal file sharing through a similar approach. In response to a question posed by Hall, all the university representatives present said they believed such technological solutions were part of the answer to reducing illicit file sharing but that they're far from foolproof. (In addition, file sharing can be used for non-infringing purposes at universities and corporations, as the U.S. Supreme Court noted in the Grokster case.)

Some officials had more favorable views about filtering and blocking. Greg Jackson, chief information officer for the University of Chicago, said his school had tried to block file-sharing traffic using various methods, but when one program failed, it took down all of the university's Internet traffic with it, stumping the technical staff for "a while."

Jackson and Illinois State University dean of libraries Cheryl Elzy also blamed the entertainment industry for some of the piracy problems.

"So long as the right thing remains more daunting, awkward and unsatisfying than the wrong thing, too many people will do the wrong thing," Jackson said, referring to the digital rights management technology used widely in legally purchased music files.

Both Elzy and Jackson endured grilling from some committee politicians who accused them of not taking seriously the viability of technological solutions.

"If we rely on technology too much, it's going to interfere with legal uses of peer-to-peer technologies," Elzy said. Some of her own library files can be quite large, she added, and "I'd like to not have those blocked."

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.

Editorial standards