October 20, 2003

Filesharing crackdown deters illegal downloads

He was one cool kitty. Sitting there with his green eyes closed, immersed in the music that poured through his blue headphones, he sported a smirk that said: "Ha! I'm beating the system!"

The Napster cat was the James Dean of the music software industry, minus the red windbreaker—a rebel without a cause, he gave hope to thousands of broke high school and college students by enabling them to steal music, anonymously, off the internet.

Or so they thought.

Last summer, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed 261 lawsuits against prolific downloaders, who include a single mother from California, a 12-year-old from New York, and a 71-year-old Yale University photography professor, among others. The suits have dealt a harsh blow to the illegal download revolution and have prompted the University of Chicago to take measures to restrict illegal file-sharing on campus.

Gregory Jackson, vice president and chief information officer of the University, recently sent an e-mail to all students to remind them of a ban, instituted by the University in 1999, on using computers plugged in to the University network to share illegally downloaded files.

In order to put some muscle behind the ban, the University put severe limitations on bandwidth, or download speed, for campus music pirates who used various peer-to-peer music swapping sites, Jackson said.

Peer-to-peer (P2P) programs enable users to download and upload files directly to other users over a network, without a central database of files. The files are sent directly from hard drive to hard drive; no third party is involved.

The University has targeted Kazaa, Grokster, Gnutella, and other P2P engines. Students who use these programs will have much slower download speeds—a three-minute song can take up to three days to download, Jackson said.

"Particularly when people are swapping movies, it consumes a huge part of the network bandwidth. Suddenly, we notice network bandwidth has become a problem."

Jackson said that the network uses a technique called traffic-shaping to give the lowest priority to illegal downloads. "We make the network work less well for traffic that is not related to the academic life at the University," he said.

But slow download speeds don't deter many P2P users from downloading music illegally. According to a transfer student who asked not to be named, the University's efforts to shape network traffic have been ineffective. "I don't know very many people who don't [download music illegally,]" he said.

Some illegal file-swappers who do not have the patience to wait days for a song to download have found other ways of sharing movies and music more quickly.

According to James Beatty, a first-year in the College, students at other campuses around the country have created "darknets," or encrypted file-sharing networks.

Darknets are "safer" than other P2P engines like Kazaa because the identities of the users are obscured to outsiders, Beatty said. "Someone from the outside can't tell what's going on inside because everything's encrypted. For some of them, even on the inside you can't tell who other people are because their actual identities are obscured," he said.

"The music industry can sue people on Kazaa because they can know who they are, but they can't do that on a darknet," Beatty added.

Most illegal downloaders also have an "it-won't-happen-to-me" mentality, said the transfer student, which makes them even more likely to continue their illicit swapping practices. "I don't know personally anyone who has gotten in trouble, and I don't think that it would be financially feasible for any company to go after every single infraction," he said.

That mindset is extremely dangerous, according to Jackson. He believes illegal file-sharers, by not realizing the real consequences of their actions, could bring about harm to themselves and the University. "Lots and lots of people here possess illegal files," Jackson said. He added that if the copyright holder is able to identify such students, the ramifications could be serious. Additionally, students who share files on the University's network are implicating the University in any lawsuit that would be filed by a copyright holder.

Jackson said that he receives five to 10 alerts per week of students using the University network for illegal file-sharing.