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Internet Forces Schools to Contend With Copyright, Speech Issues

Internet Forces Schools to Contend With Copyright, Speech Issues
By Ronald Roach and News Wires


As universities’ computer network capacities become deluged by file-sharing students, so too have school presidents’ offices been hit by complaints from the entertainment industry. Citing an estimated 2.6 billion music and video files shared illegally each month on college campuses, four entertainment industry groups recently sent a joint letter to more than 2,000 university presidents urging them to crack down on copyright infringement.

“For colleges, this really is the proverbial digital rock (and) a digital hard place,” says Dr. Casey Green of the Campus Computing Project, which studies technology issues that affect campuses.

The challenge for the schools lies in the fact that they want to avoid monitoring students’ Internet use, especially at large state institutions with tens of thousands of students. While school officials largely say they are reluctant to keep tabs on exactly what students are doing with their computers, some say they think monitoring is inevitable. Dr. Michael Zastrocky, a former college administrator and now an analyst at research firm Gartner, estimates that 80 percent of schools that “don’t monitor or don’t get involved” will face an episode of negative publicity or legal action within five years. Meanwhile, monitoring software is improving, and universities soon may run out of excuses for not using it.

“It’s not a requirement to have software that monitors access but I think it’s going to become one in the next three to five years,” Zastrocky says.

Dr. Juan Gilbert, a professor of computer science at Auburn University in Alabama, says his school is able to place control on some of the data traffic that flows into the school’s network infrastructure because individual departments issue dedicated network access and server space to students. The college of engineering, for example, allows students to download information, which is carefully monitored by department officials, because the storage space belongs to the university.

“Since students know that the engineering department monitors the traffic as well as the server space, they don’t use those accounts to download pirated music and video files,” Gilbert says.

Nonetheless, it is incumbent upon specific departments that maintain sub-networks not managed by the university’s central computing administration to maintain strict control over the access to those resources. “The sub-networks can invite abuse,” Gilbert says.

Gilbert adds he has been at institutions where students use special, unmonitored sub-networks to set up businesses to store and distribute pirated music files. He says that while schools can clamp down on the illegal use of sub-networks, it’s more difficult to monitor the data students are downloading to their privately owned computers through the campus’s central network.

Monitoring worries civil liberties advocates, who say the free exchange of information is one of the basic principles of university life.

“What’s going on here is an attempt of the recording industry and other copyright trade associations to turn higher education institutions into policing bodies,” says Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy rights group.

The entertainment industry disputes the charge leveled at them by civil liberties advocates.

“Exactly how universities do this is up to them,” says Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, one of the organizations signing the letter to university presidents. “We certainly wouldn’t be proposing that they invade anybody’s privacy.”

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