Ohio University, under heavy pressure from the recording industry to curtail illegal downloading on campus, announced a plan  Wednesday to monitor its campus network for peer-to-peer file sharing and disable Internet access for students violating a new policy restricting the use of all peer-to-peer technology.
The university is one of just a handful of institutions, including the University of Florida, to adopt such a broad approach to restricting file sharing, said John C. Vaughn, executive vice president of the Association of American Universities. “The concern is that if the price of restricting illegal file sharing is also to shut off legal transactions, that’s a price that most institutions aren’t willing to pay,” said Vaughn, who has tracked file sharing policies for the association of research universities.
But to the extent that institutions can find ways to zero in on peer-to-peer protocols that are "used overwhelmingly for illegal file sharing," Vaughn said, "then I think some institutions think it's a reasonable policy."
Ohio University employees will begin monitoring the network Friday for use of such file sharing programs as Ares, Azureus, BitTorrent, BitLord, KaZaA, LimeWire, Shareaza and uTorrent. Any use of peer-to-peer technology under the new policy could result in a loss of Internet access and, upon the second offense, a disciplinary referral -- although it’s important to note that the university will be phasing the policy in on a flexible, still undetermined time frame, targeting the biggest users first, according to Sally Linder, a university spokeswoman.
Individuals seeking to use the software for legitimate purposes, such as exchange of data for a research project, must petition for an exemption from the university’s peer-to-peer sharing block, and be ready to explain their specific needs.
“We decided to do this on our campus because we wanted to make sure of two things,” Linder said. “We did not want activities such as file sharing to take up a disproportionate amount of our network. We also have stressed since the very beginning that we do not condone unauthorized file sharing.”
Ohio University in particular has been under fire for illegal downloading on campus. The institution recently received 100 “pre-litigation letters”  from the Recording Industry Association of America, a controversial tactic in which the RIAA uses college administrators as middlemen to distribute letters containing settlement offers to students accused of illegally downloading copyrighted materials. Ohio University estimates that employees have spent nearly 120 hours dealing with the pre-litigation letters.
The university has attempted to combat file sharing by educating the student body and providing a legal music downloading service, but still, Linder says, “There continues to be some file-sharing on our campus of unauthorized materials.”
“I think we thought it was time to take that next step.”
Vaughn characterized Ohio University’s policy as essentially changing the default option: While most institutions allow students to use peer-to-peer technology with the assumption they’re pursuing legitimate uses until they prove to abuse it, Ohio will now assume illegitimate use of the technology, shifting the burden to students to demonstrate a reason they should be granted access.
“The most common approach [at universities nationally] is to do what’s called packet-shaping, which is to restrict the amount of network traffic that can be consumed by peer-to-peer applications, and packet-shaping can be applied in fairly sophisticated ways,” explained Steven L. Worona, director of policy and networking programs for Educause.
With the expected increase in legitimate peer-to-peer technologies, “it seems unlikely that a blanket prohibition of P2P will turn out to be the best approach at most campuses,” Worona added via e-mail. But he cautioned he would not want to second guess any college’s approach. “Each network management situation is different.”
And, of course, the default option is available, as Graham Spanier, the Pennsylvania State University president and a leader in responding to illegal file sharing, pointed out via e-mail Wednesday. "I am pleased to see they are prepared to facilitate legitimate uses of P2P technology while dealing with the serious issue of piracy," he wrote. "Meanwhile, technologies are emerging that will enhance a network's ability to restrict pirated materials without halting legitimate uses."