WASHINGTON – Congress wants to crack down on illegal music and movie downloads at colleges, but universities are questioning the methods and their consequences.
Inside the 747-page Higher Education Act reauthorization is a small yet potentially significant section designed to combat illegal file sharing on college campuses.
It would require colleges to offer “alternatives to illegal downloading” and to “explore technology-based deterrents to prevent such illegal activity.”
The consequences for violators of these provisions are unclear, however, and some university officials have cried foul over what they see as overreaching government intervention.
The University System of Maryland is one of several institutions to question these parts of the bill. Congressional lawmakers — and the motion picture industry — stand by them and say opposition to the bill on those grounds is unfounded.
William E. “Brit” Kirwan, the university system’s chancellor, was one of several university officials to sign a letter to Congress opposing the act’s file-sharing crackdowns.
The bill “would establish the Secretary of Education as an agent of the entertainment industry,” the letter said, adding that “this clearly is an inappropriate role for a Cabinet officer of the federal government.”
Additionally, Kirwan and his colleagues objected to the call for “technology-based deterrents,” saying “adequate versions of which experts agree do not yet exist.”
The scope of existing deterrent technologies does not match the problem, said Mark Luker, vice president of Educause, a nonprofit involved with information technology in higher education.
Some technologies, he said, block too much, which can affect legal file transfers. Others don’t do enough.
And the “bad guys” are always trying to get around the latest deterrents, Luker said. “It’s sort of an arms race situation, and a difficult one.”
“If, in fact, it were interpreted that we have to buy specific technologies, that would be onerous,” said Donald Spicer, associate vice chancellor and chief information officer of the university system.
He added, however, that the language of the bill does not mandate that. That pressure, though, has come from elsewhere.
“The entertainment industry has pushed us to adopt certain technologies that even the suppliers say are ineffective,” Spicer said.
The Motion Picture Association of America, however, said in a statement that “extraordinary developments” have been made in deterrent technology, and that “use of such technological measures is critical in weaning students from illegal file-sharing and directing them toward legitimate online services.”
The MPAA cited programs at the University of Florida and Illinois State University as success stories, having significantly reduced illegal activity and saved millions of dollars by experimenting with different anti-piracy technologies.
Another point of contention has been over financial aid; since the file-sharing provisions of the bill apply to schools that receive Title IV funding, critics of those provisions have said offending schools could lose federal aid money.
“I think the tie with financial aid is inappropriate,” Spicer said.
Supporters say the bill’s ties to financial aid are not explicit.
“This bill includes no provisions that would strip federal student aid from either colleges or students because of illegal file sharing,” said a “fact sheet” issued by the House Education and Labor Committee, which unanimously passed the bill Thursday.
Schools throughout the university system have already taken some steps mandated by the bill.
“Quite honestly, because we in fact have been dealing with this and have been quite proactive, we think that the language is probably unnecessary, but we understand the political realities of the situation,” Spicer said.
One such step was introducing Ruckus, a legal music service that provides some free playback, at the system’s schools.
The use of Ruckus at the University of Maryland, College Park, has been “very successful”, said Phyllis Johnson, a spokeswoman with the university’s Office of Information Technology.
More than 8,000 UMCP students have subscribed to Ruckus, Johnson said.
Ruckus users, however, are generally limited in how they can use the files they download. Users cannot download copy-protected song files to portable listening devices — like iPods — or burn them to CDs.