Colleges are starting to get some hope that they may not be facing a huge bill -- estimated as high as $7 billion  -- from new federal regulations on the security of computer networks.
For two months, colleges have been complaining that the way the regulations were written would force colleges to spend much more money than was reasonable to alter their networks. Now an official of the Federal Communications Commission has suggested that the regulations may apply only to a small part of campus networks. If that's true, colleges would face much smaller expenses, but FCC officials appear to be only one player in this matter, and now say that there are two possible interpretations of the regulation -- one favorable to the colleges and one not.
The regulations  in dispute would require all non-private networks to rewire their systems to make it easier for federal officials, when legally justified in doing so, to install wiretaps. Because colleges have made a huge investment in the last decade to protect their networks from intruders, reworking their networks to give federal authorities easier access would be a huge undertaking.
Colleges have been preparing a formal challenge to the rules. But some college experts on the issue were heartened when an FCC official told The Gainesville Sun this month that the government was only interested in gaining access at the points where campus networks connect directly to the Internet. The regulations wouldn't apply to most parts of campus networks, the official said.
An FCC official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, confirmed Thursday that the Florida article was correct about one possible interpretation of the regulations. But the official said that there was another interpretation as well. The key part of the regulation, this official said, was a single footnote about when private networks (like those of colleges) become networks covered by the regulation. The footnote refers to the point where these networks connect with the Internet, but it remains to be seen whether that means such a connection is the only portion covered by the rules, or whether such a connection makes an entire college network covered by the regulations.
The FCC official suggested that the Justice Department is more likely to take a hard line on the rules.
Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for public and government affairs at the American Council on Education, said that the more minimal interpretation would indeed be a major breakthrough for colleges. The potential expenses to higher education would be "enormously diminished," he said.
But Hartle said that colleges needed to get clarity on the issue. He said that the ACE would be seeking that clarity, and that it would be impossible to stop being concerned about the issue unless there is an explicit statement limiting the rules.
The council and other higher education groups have said that the broader interpretation of the rules would be needlessly expensive since colleges are so rarely asked to install federal wiretaps and are able to respond quickly should there be a true need.