Wednesday, December 31, 2003  
 Clubs TonightHot TixBand GuideMP3sBest Music PollSki GuideThe Best '03 
Food & Drink
Editors' Picks
New This Week
News and Features

Food & Drink


Stuff at Night
The Providence Phoenix
The Portland Phoenix
FNX Radio Network

  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

College try
Local institutions of higher learning seek to stop their students from using school networks for illegal file-sharing ó sort of

LITIGATION OVER illegal file-sharing has placed local colleges and universities in an awkward position. This summer, five Boston-area schools ó Bentley, Boston College, Northeastern, Boston University, and MIT ó were hit with subpoenas from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which sought the names of students suspected of illegal file-sharing. BC, BU, and MIT initially refused to cooperate, arguing that the subpoenas hadnít been issued by the appropriate court ó but after the RIAA served them with validly reissued subpoenas, the schools were forced to comply. This month, 261 individuals were named in lawsuits filed by the RIAA, and the organization has indicated plans to file additional lawsuits in the future.

Since college studentsí use of school networks to download digital music and file-share has become something of a focal point in this evolving story, itís fair to wonder if area schools are doing anything new to rein students in. For the most part, the answer is: not really.

At BC, Northeastern, MIT, Tufts, Brandeis, and Bentley, the same policies exist today that were instituted during the first Napster-fueled wave of digital music downloading. (Officials at Harvard College did not respond to the Phoenixís requests for information.) Boston College chief information officer Marian Moore emphasizes that incoming students are getting the same warning at orientation sessions ó namely, that the institution canít and wonít protect them if they ignore copyright restrictions. "Itís not a new phenomenon that we tell all students that if they violate intellectual-property [restrictions], theyíre breaking the law," Moore says.

The efficacy of these orientation pitches is uncertain. Northeastern, like BC, has been warning students for years ó but Rick Mickool, Northeasternís executive director for information services, says infringement reports from the RIAA and copyright holders have become commonplace. Less dramatic than subpoenas or lawsuits, infringement reports also rely on automated programs capable of scanning the Internet for suspect transactions. Itís easy to flag a particularly active user address, or IP, as a probable offender, and when a copyright holder notifies that userís Internet service provider, network personnel can track down the offending party.

Mickool says heís received about 90 infringement complaints specifically connected to music use since January 2003, and that new complaints are now arriving from the RIAA every day or two. After Northeastern IT staffers link the IP to a particular student, the consequences vary: less egregious offenders may simply be asked to delete the illegally obtained material from their computers, but individuals revealed as high-volume traffickers in illegal files can have their network privileges temporarily revoked. Approximately 50 Northeastern students were hit with port shut-offs in the last year, but Mickool canít say how many were prompted by infringement complaints from the music industry.

Like Northeastern, Tufts University responds to infringement complaints on a case-by-case basis. According to director of university IT infrastructure Lesley Tolman, some students are told to remove illegally obtained materials and to disable the uploading function on whatever file-sharing program they happen to use, while others lose computing privileges altogether; the type of disciplinary action taken is determined by the Dean of Studentsí Office. At Brandeis, the consequences are harsher: if an infringement complaint is upheld, the offending studentís network connection is immediately disabled, but can be restored if the student removes the offending material and convinces administrators that he or she has reformed, according to chief information officer Perry Hanson.

Some schools take additional steps to shape student habits. Several IT departments monitor bandwidth use and investigate users who take a high level of bandwidth for a long period of time. This type of "top talker" policy is a staple of Northeasternís internal-enforcement mechanisms. Brandeis has a similar policy, and also maintains a Web site that allows students to measure their bandwidth use and determine if theyíre about to receive an institutional warning. Repeat offenders can lose network privileges altogether.

Advocates of bandwidth monitoring frame the issue in ethical terms: the network belongs to the community, and inordinately heavy bandwidth use deprives other community members of a needed resource. They also distinguish between monitoring usage patterns and monitoring content. But others say itís hard to differentiate between the two, since sustained high levels of bandwidth use imply a certain type of material is being accessed or distributed. "We donít do bandwidth, largely because we have run for a very, very long time an open network based upon the notion of no content filtering and no content oversight," says Tim McGovern, who monitors computer-system misuse at MIT. "By our reading of the rules that govern ISPs" ó here McGovern cites legal precedents dating back to the late 1980s ó "if we begin to monitor any part of our network traffic, we really become responsible for the content of any part of that traffic."

None of the policies already mentioned was implemented in response to the recent subpoenas or lawsuits. But at least some Boston-area colleges are spreading the word about their old protocols with a heightened sense of urgency as the new academic year begins. MITís administration has taken out ads in the schoolís student newspaper, the Tech, discussing the RIAA subpoenas and the universityís response. In May, Brandeisís Hanson sent an open letter to students outlining the schoolís student-computing policies and emphasizing the dangers of file-sharing; the letter was re-sent this fall. "I think there are about a half-dozen different venues we use to review the responsible-use policy," says Lesley Tolman of Tufts. "Itís in print, itís part of orientation, itís in the student handbook, itís published in a variety of places, and weíve also gone through a series of postering sessions and tutorials with [resident assistants] and proctors."

The exception is Bentley, which was hit with four RIAA subpoenas. This summer, the college responded by blocking access to the most widely used file-sharing applications; the measure remains in effect this fall. But Traci Logan, Bentleyís vice-president for information technology, downplays the move. "We see this as a somewhat reactive approach to addressing this issue, one that reduces rather than eliminates file-sharing," Logan wrote in an e-mail. "The fact is, itís virtually impossible to completely prevent this type of activity through the use of network management tools, so we like other colleges and universities rely heavily on education to influence behavior."

Whether this approach will be adequate remains to be seen. Michael Krugman, executive director of BUís office of information technology, suggests that something more may be needed: "Iíve prayed for five or 10 minutes of time every day for the past several weeks," he writes in an e-mail. Itís hard to know if heís joking ó and several administrators express frustration at the situation they now find themselves in. "The premise that the real problem is on college campuses is totally bogus," says BCís Marian Moore. "The larger ISPs such as AOL, Mindspring, and Earthlink probably are generating much more file-sharing than all of the college campuses put together. But weíre probably an easier target."

Adam Reilly can be reached at areilly[a]

online music special
The Empire strikes back
Amid declining CD sales, weak releases, and the continued rise of online file-sharing, the five major labels are fighting to regain market share

Sue you, sue me blues
The recording industry tries to scare 60 million file-swappers by suing 261 of them

College try
Local institutions of higher learning seek to stop their students from using school networks for illegal file-sharing ó sort of

Sounds like stealing to me
Call it Ďtradingí if you want, but I donít buy it

The young and the board
With little sympathy for the record industry, the P2P generation is takiní it to the screen

The iCollector
Thereís a history to this file-sharing thing that can help us anticipate its future

Future imperfect
Copy protection wonít work, and compulsory licensing raises the specter of government control. Why our best hope may be just to muddle through.

Sonic youth
Musical adolescence in three parts

Issue Date: September 26 - October 2, 2003
Back to the News & Features table of contents
  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

about the phoenix |  find the phoenix |  advertising info |  privacy policy |  the masthead |  feedback |  work for us

 © 2000 - 2003 Phoenix Media Communications Group