Congress Wants Universities to Do More to Stop Peer to Peer File Sharing

It's no secret that the entertainment industry, under the auspices of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), views college students using peer-to-peer file sharing networks as the prime perpetrators of online thievery. Now it looks like they may get a boost from Congress in their attempt to stop such copyright violations, if a tiny new provision in the huge College Opportunity and Affordability Act makes it into law. It seems that the industry views campus administrators as both partners and opponents in the fight to stop digital piracy, a notion that's frustrating many in higher education.

The bill, approved unanimously on Thursday by the House Committee on Education and Labor, requires that universities "develop a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property as well as a plan to explore technology-based deterrents to prevent such illegal activity." This language set off a firestorm in the blogosphere, not only from universities, but also from fair use supporters like Public Knowledge.

The fact that the new peer-to-peer requirements appeared under the section tied to financial aid made many opponents suspicious that failure to comply would mean losing out on federal money. The Student Loan Network denounced the new provisions in their Financial Aid Podcast, calling them "a lobbying money grab from the RIAA and the MPAA" that would require schools to spend money fighting piracy instead of funding financial aid.

On Friday I talked with Tom Kiley, a press representative for the committee, and he was adamant that schools would not lose out on financial aid for failing to shut down file sharing. "If a school refuses to report to the secretary what theyâ''re doing, the Department of Education would keep on them until they do," he said. Nothing is spelled out in the bill, but if Kiley is right, it sounds like an enforcement strategy that relies more on cooperation than punishment.

All the same, it's hard to blame the universities from bristling about the Committee's decision. Most schools have already began working with the entertainment industry to address the problem: after all, thousands of students uploading and downloading files puts a strain on campus computing resources as well. Regardless of their effectiveness, it seems to me that schools really are trying to get students to stop file sharing (NYU, for example, has a strongly worded, but mostly reasonable letter to students on the subject.)

"The reality is that higher ed has worked in good faith with the entertainment industry," said Barry Toiv, a spokesperson for the American Association of Universities. The group wrote a letter opposing the bill for a number of reasons prior to the committee's vote. "Itâ''s a little disheartening when the industry turns around and seeks legislative solutions." The association, which represents 62 research universities in the US and Canada, wrote a letter urging the committee to rethink the new provisions. Instead, after the committee voted unanimously in favor of the bill, Kiley's office released a fact sheet meant to "dispel misleading information" that originally referred to opponents of the anti-piracy measures as "supporters of intellectual property theft" (After numerous complaints, Kiley said they reissued the document with changed wording).

The RIAA clearly doesn't think the schools are doing enough. "This legislation, for the first time, obligates universities to play a more active role in responding to the problem in a meaningful way. And that, in and of itself, is a very good thing, because that incentivizes investment in new music and encourages a level playing field for legal services to thrive," wrote Cara Duckworth, the Communications Director of the RIAA in an email.

What I still can't understand is why the RIAA has targeted campus networks so much more than commercial internet service providers. On Thursday, they also launched the tenth wave of litigation against users on college campuses, sending out 417 pre-litigation letters to 16 universities.

Yet, according to Kenneth Green, "college students accounted for less than 4 percent of the more than 8,400 John Doe lawsuits for illegal P2P downloading filed by the RIAA in 2004-2005." It seems like rather than addressing the changing culture of entertainment consumption, the entertainment industry is looking for easy targets. In fact, recipients of those 417 letters are encouraged to "resolve their claims" at www.p2plawsuits.com, for a fee, of course.

It seems to me that Green sums up the strategy rather well:

Rather than address the proliferation of P2P activity in the consumer market, often aided and abetted by consumer broadband service providers, the MPAA and RIAA have opted to focus on college students, campus networks, and college administrators â'' admittedly easy (and often unsympathetic) targets. In an era of digital media, are consumers understandably confused by the Supreme Courtâ''s 1978 BetaMax decision that said they could use VCRs (and today, by extension, TIVO and similar technologies) to record â''over the airâ'' content for personal use? Probably so. But while the real, long-term solution on illegal P2P activity should focus on user education, the MPAA and RIAA apparently feel that legislation offers a quicker remedy.

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