NEWS

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October 29, 2008

New bill may force University to more actively deter piracy

The U.S. House of Representatives is considering a bill that would force colleges to implement network-wide deterrents to online piracy and offer all students legal download alternatives to copyright infringement.

These requirements are part of the "Campus Based Digital Theft Prevention" section of the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 (COAA), introduced last Friday by Representatives George Miller (D-CA) and Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX). COAA is a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The majority of the bill streamlines the federal aid process in an attempt to make it easier and more affordable for low-income students to attend college.

Similar language was included in two previous bills, one last spring and one over the summer, but the amendments were voted off of the bills in committee. The current iteration is less stern than the version Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proposed in July, which would have mandated that the secretary of education compile a top-25 list of schools with the most copyright infringements, based on the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) rankings. The University of Chicago is 16th on that list.

The current bill has three main provisions. The first is uncontroversial and mandates the "disclosure of policies and sanctions related to copyright infringement," something the University already does. The other two stipulate that colleges "develop a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading…as well as a plan to explore technology-based deterrents to prevent such illegal activity."

"The technology provision is the one that's really quite worrisome," said Greg Jackson, vice president and chief information officer of the University. "As far as we know there are no technologies that are known to work in a broad sense."

There are two known technologies to deter illegal file sharing: traffic shaping and signature matching. Traffic shaping involves assigning different types of network traffic different priorities, which equates to different speeds. This allows network administrators to shape traffic according to certain policies, like assigning peer-to-peer traffic a low priority.

The problem, Jackson said, is that it is harder and harder to identify peer-to-peer traffic. Even when programs can, he said, they get false positives because they don't look at the content of the transfers, just the behavior. Furthermore, there are numerous legitimate and legal uses for peer-to-peer file transfers.

Jackson did note some legitimate points of the entertainment industry's argument, however. "A valid counter argument is… 'That's all fine and dandy, but 95 percent of peer-to peer use is illegal, so don't give me anything about the other 5 percent,'" Jackson said. "There's some merit to that argument. Try to find me a legitimate use for eDonkey. You won't find one."

The other technology, signature matching, requires copyright holders to register their material so that programs can check content being transferred across a network against the signature of the copyrighted material. Problems occur because files are transferred in small pieces, or packets, and not all along the same pathway. This makes it difficult to reconstitute the file mid-transfer to compile it.

"The flaw is you have to register content, and you can't check anything that's not registered. So it doesn't stop everything, and if the requirement is to stop everything, this wouldn't work," said Jackson.

According to Jackson, the lack of effective deterrent software leaves network administrators without viable options. "It's easy to think of an approach that solves the problem: You turn off the network. The other extreme is we do absolutely nothing. The question is where on that continuum do you go?" he said. "The problem with all of these technologies is that they all interfere with network traffic, which leads to slowdown."

The deterrent portion of the bill is in response to the rising number of reported copyright infringements on college networks in the past several years. The University of Chicago received 57 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) complaints in 2006 and estimates it will receive 130 by the end of 2007. The DMCA gave the entertainment industry legal authority to begin prosecuting individuals who illegally share copyrighted digital material.

In a press release in support of the bill, MPAA president Dan Glickman said, "Intellectual property theft is a worldwide problem that hurts our economy and costs more than 140,000 American jobs every year. We are pleased to see that Congress is taking this step to help keep our economy strong by protecting copyrighted material on college campuses."

The other, and newer, part of the bill would require colleges to consider legal alternatives to file sharing. This would require colleges to plan on using legal subscription download services, such as Napster or Ruckus. The objection raised by many, including Educause, a nonprofit that advocates for technology-based higher education issues, is that students wouldn't use those services anyway because they carry limited selections or do not work with their music players.

Only three services work with iPods, one of the most popular mp3 players: iTunes, Wal-Mart's digital music store, and some of Amazon's library. Other services, like Napster and Ruckus, use digital rights management (DRM) software, which prevents their content from being used everywhere.

"People want things slightly cheaper, they want to get anything, and they want to be able to get it easily and put it on whatever device they want," Jackson said. "These are all reasonable things to expect, but the market's not responding."

This is not the first time Jackson has spoken out about available downloading services. In his testimony to the House Committee on Science and Technology, whose hearings led to the COAA, he said, "So long as the right thing remains more daunting, awkward, and unsatisfying than the wrong thing, too many people will do the wrong thing."

The penalty for universities not complying would be the loss of Title IV student aid eligibility, which comprises over $100 billion in federal financial aid. In a letter to the House Committee on Education and Labor, which marked up the bill this Wednesday, several university officials wrote, "Such an extraordinary and punitive outcome would result in all students on that campus losing their federal financial aid—including Pell grants and student loans." The officials—the president of Stanford, chancellor of the University of Maryland system, president of Penn State, and counsel of Yale—continued, noting the irony of a bill that is designed to make college more affordable but has the potential of harming lower-income students.

According to Jackson, it is unlikely that the bill will pass with the current language. "I think what will probably happen is the technology provision will get watered down with something that qualifies it to give us some room, rather than tell us absolutely what to do." If that happens, Jackson said he would consider using a traffic-shaping program, Packeteer, to make peer-to-peer transfers very slow. "I'd make it so that you wouldn't want to use our network [for peer-to-peer clients]. I'd rather you use some other network, like the Starbucks on 55th," he said.

He might also consider completely blocking access to such programs in dorms. The University currently allows most forms of network traffic on campus, with a few exceptions. Jackson might reverse that policy in dorms and only allow a select few things—like web browsing or e-mail—and restrict the rest. "A lot of our peers already do that," he said.

As for the legal alternatives section, Jackson doesn't see a problem. "I would say 'we will give everyone access to Ruckus.' In fact, they already have access to Ruckus," he said, referring to the free access anyone with a .edu email has to Ruckus' content.

But what people really want, and would actually use, he said, is access to a DRM-free store. "If someone like Apple were to write us a site license, I would imagine we would think about it. But it would show up in your tuition."

"It's reasonably likely some form of the amendment will make it through," Jackson said. "If it did, there's lots of ways to figure out how to do it here. It's unpleasant, and who wants to do it? But it's not the end of the world."