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June 6, 2007

To use one of several metaphors to come out of Tuesday's Congressional hearing on efforts to combat illegal downloading, colleges are finding themselves in the middle of a high-tech "arms race" between the recording and movie industries on one side and computer users, using increasingly clever methods to download copyrighted works for free, on the other.

But panelists from universities and business implied that ratcheting up their policing mechanisms in response to every new innovation by peer-to-peer networks was ultimately unsustainable. In other words, no détente in sight.

Colleges and universities have been an important front in the Recording Industry Association of America's battle against illegal file sharing, manifested most recently in the new strategy of sending "pre-litigation" letters -- 400 a month -- that give students a choice between settling at a discounted rate (reportedly saving up to several thousand dollars apiece) or going to court. College administrators have found themselves in the crossfire since they, not the students, are the recipients of the letters -- casting them not only in the role of de facto network cops, but messengers as well.

But beyond the questions surrounding colleges' role in the enforcement of copyright law -- cooperation with the recording industry has ranged from near-bans of all activity on peer-to-peer networks, including legal downloads, to more laissez-faire attitudes -- there is the problem of feasibility. That is, has technology advanced far enough to allow college technology officers to smoke out illegal traffic without affecting legitimate online activity? And will technology ever be enough to stop rampant illegal downloading?

The answers to those questions would surely affect any forthcoming legislation on the issue. For most of the four years that the issue has been on Congress's radar, discussion has remained mainly within the Senate Judiciary Committee and the legal realm; on Tuesday, the House Committee on Science and Technology looked under the hood. While no one signaled any concrete actions on the horizon, members were clearly hoping for a resolution sooner rather than later.

"I don't want to be holding this same hearing in the 111th Congress," said Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the committee's chairman.

In providing their testimony, the panelists were in broad agreement on several points: Technology alone can't stop piracy, although it should be part of the solution; and progress is being made. "In the end, the technologies we'll discuss today will form part of a larger anti-piracy solution that also includes legal alternatives, education, and adequate protections of privacy and consumer rights," said the committee's senior Republican, Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas.

The administrators also tended to emphasize that part of the problem lies in the absence of a scalable legal alternative to online piracy: Most download services offer media files that are only compatible with proprietary devices, and digital rights management means music purchased online isn't always as portable as consumers would like.

So they stressed that part of the solution needs to be to encourage behavioral changes, and that that would require incentives and educational efforts. "We must educate people to understand why certain behaviors are counterproductive for their own community and economy," said Greg Jackson, the vice president and chief information officer of the University of Chicago. "If we do that together -- by which I mean owners, publishers, transmitters and users -- collective good will trump individual malfeasance."

Jackson was also the most vocal skeptic of the extent to which technology alone will solve the problem of illegal downloading, provoking a series of pointed questions from Gordon, who forced him to admit that Chicago had not tested every method of combating piracy.

Gordon asked why companies and universities require antivirus software and spam filters -- presumably other technologies that are not perfect -- to be installed on computers. Jackson responded that antivirus programs were close to perfect, but that spam blockers were not. The fundamental difference, he said, was that those methods could be installed on a user's computer as opposed to a central network location, meaning no possibility of network slowdowns or other widespread adverse effects that might result from some of the more elaborate methods of blocking peer-to-peer file sharing.

"If we could have a tool that we could persuade people to install in their computers with that kind of effectiveness," Jackson said, efforts to stop illegal downloading would make more sense. (Whether users would voluntarily install such software is another question.)

The technology used to stop illegal downloading breaks down into two main categories. "Traffic shaping" is a common method in which network administrators control how much bandwidth different kinds of files can take up. "Network filtering," or "signature matching," by contrast, blocks files that contain known copyrighted material.

Several universities represented on the panel had experience with Audible Magic Corp.'s CopySense Appliance, and the president and CEO of the company, Vance Ikezoye, was also present. He said the technology has led to significant reduction in piracy and network traffic on university networks, citing one campus that saw a 71-percent decrease in the number of students using peer-to-peer downloading software and a decline in download traffic to "effectively zero."

Jackson was still skeptical about the ability of signature-matching technologies to crack down on illegal downloading. "The requirements for satisfactory signature matching appear unattainable within the typical campus network," he told the panel in his statement.

At its most basic level, the debate over how best to combat online piracy obscures the fundamental question of how to protect intellectual property while still making it accessible -- a requirement at "the heart of higher education," as Jackson put it.

Perhaps illustrating both the generation gap between college students and lawmakers, and the technological gap between the panelists and the committee members, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) may have put it simplest -- by using another metaphor. What downloading music and movies is to today's college students, he suggested, is what sharing comic books was to his generation.

"I don't know, really, how different that is from sharing these music files," he said.

The other panelists included Charles Wight, associate vice president for academic affairs and undergraduate studies at the University of Utah; Adrian Sannier, vice president and university technology officer at Arizona State University, on leave from Iowa State University; and Cheryl Asper Elzy, dean of university libraries at Illinois State University and on the management team of ISU’s Digital Citizen Project.

 

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