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Can Anyone Police File Sharing?

August 3, 2007

Campus file sharing briefly hit prominence in Congress last week as colleges lobbied against a proposed amendment in the Senate to the Higher Education Act reauthorization that would have required universities to use "technology-based" systems to try to block illegal downloading activity. While the amendment was withdrawn, it may be revived in the House -- and certainly the entertainment industry has no intention of letting the issue go away.

But as lobbyists for colleges and the recording industry worked furiously last week, the debate was over how to best police students, not whether they could be policed. Many regular downloaders today learned their habits long before college and will continue to share copyrighted works after they graduate. Interviews with students at a cross-section of colleges suggest that they view deterrents to file sharing as temporary nuisances, which in time they will figure out a way to get around. So who's to say that lawmakers on the Hill or record labels in Los Angeles or administrators have any sway over whether students' cravings for fresh music, readily available movies and the latest TV episodes can ever be stemmed?

"The response has not been to dampen students’ enthusiasm for downloading music," said Fred von Lohmann, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group that is critical of lawsuits targeting online music downloaders.

A 2006 survey by Illinois State University's Digital Citizen Project found that peer-to-peer networks were used by up to 39 percent of rising college freshmen at Illinois State, and that they started downloading as early as the sixth grade. In college, just over a third of students say they download music illegally from peer-to-peer networks, and two-thirds of the downloaders don't concern themselves over whether the music is copyrighted.

A common belief among downloaders is that sharing files can actually help artists by promoting their work and that there is nothing wrong with it. And this belief is held by today's students, who have heard the lectures and seen (and ignored) the movie previews on the value of copyright. Alejandro Aguiluz, a student at Evangel University whose stated interests on Facebook include "File Sharing," compared the practice with checking out books from a library.

The primary weapon wielded by university IT administrators is software that blocks certain types of file downloads on the campus network. One prominent example, CopySense by Audible Magic, has had some demonstrated success. The company's CEO, Vance Ikezoye, testified to a House of Representatives panel last month that at one campus, peer-to-peer file sharing traffic dropped from 20 gigabytes per day to nearly zero in less than a week after installing the software -- leading to a 71-percent drop in the number of users operating peer-to-peer network clients.

But some critics say that this approach -- purchasing software that can stem the flow of copyrighted material over campus networks today while ignoring the potential effects on students' downloading tactics tomorrow -- will lead only to a tug-of-war between computer users and IT administrators, a virtual "arms race" that could cost universities millions of dollars while leading only to more sophisticated downloaders.

"I do think that efforts to stop music sharing on campus are futile and are almost certain to remain so," von Lohmann said. "Some people have pointed to technologies that may be able to intercept file sharing using today’s technology, but as anyone knows who’s been following this, that will almost immediately result in changes and improvements by file-sharing vendors to make their applications ... less vulnerable to that kind of monitoring."

As an example, von Lohmann said that a hypothetical university employing blocking software might see immediate drops in illegal activity, but it would only be a matter of time before peer-to-peer software clients began encrypting their transmissions in the same way a bank website might protect its users' identities from theft online. If IT administrators tried to take the next step -- banning encrypted network traffic -- plenty of legitimate activities could also be curbed, he said.

"You can’t just legislate in a vacuum and assume that we’ll solve the problem today and not worry about what’s going to happen next week," he said.

Von Lohmann advocates a system in which universities pay blanket licensing fees directly to record labels to cover their students' existing download habits. Citing the relative failure of trial runs at college campuses by services such as Napster and Ruckus, von Lohmann said the concept could work because students wouldn't have to worry about compatibility issues with their iPods or their files becoming unusable after graduation. Already, some surveys indicate that more students pay to download music legally than through unauthorized peer-to-peer networks, one likely side effect of the popularity of services such as Apple's iTunes.

"Part of file sharing’s appeal was the kind of a-la-carte method of consuming music, and that’s what these online music services [like iTunes] now offered. That’s what they caught on about file sharing," said Matthew Marco, a Web designer for the House of Representatives who graduated from the University of California at Irvine in 2004.

But lacking a concrete solution that could please both record labels and universities, students would continue to invent new ways to circumvent technological barriers as well as the law, von Lohmann suggested. Already, anyone wanting to find free music, movies, TV episodes or video games online doesn't have to look far. The BitTorrent client offers quick downloads and access to troves of files at various online repositories; popular clients such as LimeWire and DC++ facilitate peer-to-peer connections between students sharing files and those looking to expand their collections. Piracy isn't limited to the Internet at large, either: private "darknets" hosted by students on the local campus network -- not accessible to outside users -- have surged in popularity as well.

To cite one example of an evolving file-sharing protocol, DC++ -- an open-source client for the peer-to-peer Direct Connect network -- could be moving toward more encryption, according to one of the program's developers. "The new protocol will have the capability to be wrapped in SSL/TLS (I'm unsure of which), but as of yet, we haven't implemented that in the client. Mostly the encryption is to allow secure exchange of passwords and chat, but its effect upon traffic categorization is a nice benefit," said Todd Pederzani, referring to a method of singling out and blocking peer-to-peer file traffic in computer networks, in an e-mail message. The implication is that one popular file-sharing client is moving toward potentially adopting measures -- as von Lohmann predicted -- that could be used to evade universities' tactics for sniffing out unauthorized download traffic.

But von Lohmann doesn't think the only possibility for students who share music will be an increasing technological sophistication. Students can easily swap files via shared hard drives or burned DVDs, and those methods are much harder to track. (Plus, it should be noted, YouTube has opened a new front in the pirating war, as millions of Internet users have found that their favorite songs and videos are often readily available for instant streaming in just a few clicks.)

Michael Carey, a student at Ohio University who used to operate a DC++ hub on campus, said a combination of the institution's press coverage -- as the recipient of the most notices from the Recording Industry Association of America -- and the resulting well-publicized crackdown on peer-to-peer file sharing has successfully stemmed downloading activity to some extent. But, he added, "I think eventually it will pick back up when there’s a new way that’s harder to track."

Still, the response at one campus likely hasn't affected students' overall willingness to download and share copyrighted music and other files. "I would say probably 50 percent of people I know use it on at least a semi-regular basis and probably 10-15 percent are very heavy into it," said Brenton Wildes, who will be a sophomore at the University of Florida. Wildes said he used to download a large volume of files but that he now sticks only to legal services.

A File-Sharing Culture?

Why haven't students and others who share files online responded to the legal and technical roadblocks designed to restrict their downloading to legal venues? Marco said he believes there is a social component to consider beyond the mere habit.

"You had people actually pushing music they liked," he said; people could connect online, discover new music through each other's online libraries and form communities that were highly specialized -- similar to "early adopters" of new technologies.

His implication was that the music industry, in particular, would have to adapt to a "paradigmatic change" in how it assesses the value of artists, one that began with the rise of broadband Internet access and the success of Napster's first incarnation. "It’s going to be the performance, the marketing, the licensing of the artist's personality," Marco said. As for various attempts to stem the flow of digital copyright infringement, he said, "I think it’s a waste of money because I think the paradigm has already shifted ... they show a kind of denial."

Wildes agrees that the status quo is hardly desirable.

"The system we have now is not the ideal system," he said. "First and foremost, it’s not legal, obviously, so they can come down on people for using it, and I think that a better way would be if the people behind these file-sharing programs and the people at the RIAA … got together and worked something out."

 

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