U.S.Colleges Play Internet Traffic Cop
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
Although no one has threatened legal action yet, recent letters from the entertainment industry to college and university officials were blunt: "Copyright infringement is theft. Theft' is a harsh word, but that it is, pure and simple." the letters said.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD had seized nearly 100 student computers suspected of containing illegally downloaded music and movies.
It was the toughest action yet in higher education's struggle against the trading of copyrighted material over colleges' Internet servers, the newspaper said.
In a bid to help academics manage the problem, some higher education trade associations are testing software that monitors online activities, says Richard Harpel of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, which represents more than 200 state-financed schools. A pilot program has yet to be developed, however, and is probably a year away.
Ironically, the biggest hurdle for universities to overcome may be convincing students that what they're doing is against the law. Many students who use university networks to download copyrighted works simply don't realize they are violating federal copyright law.
Students also don't realize that illegally loading music or video opens the university to even more illegal "sharing" of that piece of work. Much of the "peer-to-peer" technology that allows a student to get a movie also has the ability to let a third party take over part of the user's computer and bandwidth. So if a college student has "Lord of the Rings" downloaded on the university network, someone from another state, even another country, could access and download the movie, clogging up the university system.
That's another reason college presidents are beginning to care more about students' Internet behavior. Massive downloading of movies and music eats up a huge amount of bandwidth on a college's computer system. That pushes research off the network and forces universities to spend huge amounts of money to upgrade their overcrowded systems. One university recently spent more than $1 million to do just that
Part of the problem is a mismatch between existing technology and laws, says Mark A. Luker, vice president of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit that specializes in higher education technology issues. Existing technology can monitor overall traffic, but can't distinguish a student who is illegally downloading an Austin Powers film from a professor who is legally downloading a properly copyrighted movie for a distance learning class.
Privacy advocates are urging colleges to move slowly and carefully. "Network monitoring for bandwidth management is appropriate, but monitoring of individuals' activities does not comport with higher education values," the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C. public interest group, said in letters to college and university presidents earlier this month.
No one has exact figures on how big the problem is on college campuses or how much it's costing the entertainment industry. Viant, a Boston-based consulting firm, estimates that more than 350,000 movies are illegally downloaded from the Internet every day. The Motion Picture Association of America estimates the industry loses $3 billion each year through illegal downloading and piracy.
Some universities have already acted. Drake University has a "computer acceptable use policy" that clearly prohibits students from using the university's system to download copyrighted audio, video, graphics or text materials. Penalties for violating the policy range from losing computer privileges to expulsion. The policy also makes clear that violators may also be liable for civil or criminal prosecution under state and federal laws.
Other universities with similar policies include the University of North Carolina; the University of Michigan; and Penn State.
Many expect more universities to go the same route -- for legal, economic and ethical reasons. "Colleges and universities should not be in the business of condoning or promoting unlawful activities," according to Sheldon E. Steinbach, general counsel of the American Council on Education, one of six higher education groups that called on college presidents to act to combat illegal online piracy.