Earlier this summer I spoke at the Institute for Computer Policy and Law, a workshop for professionals responsible for IT infrastructure in higher education. They were all abuzz about a campaign this spring and summer by the RIAA to target colleges and universities and demand that they take more actions to curb illegal downloading by their students. In particular, a just-defeated Senate amendment to the Higher Education Reauthorization Act would have required that colleges and universities install certain forms of DRM and filtering technology on their networks to catch students infringing copyright law through illegal downloading. The amendment also envisioned federal government publication of a list of the 25 colleges and universities that received the most infringement notices from the content industries — not exactly an unbiased metric! (Technically, these were framed as conditions for federal funds, but effectively they’re mandates given the importance of federal money in higher ed, as we know from other contexts.) The amendment’s author, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, withdrew it in the face of sharp criticism. But the base bill will be considered in the House this fall (where there have already been hearings on the issue) and everyone expects the same amendment to be back.
I recognize that illegal downloading is illegal and I think schools absolutely should take steps to stop their students from doing it. But there’s two problems with the Reid approach.
First, DRM and filtering technology has the double-whammy of being really expensive and burdensome to install properly on one hand and frequently ineffective on the other. The problems can include interfering with P2P technology that has legitimate and innovative educational purposes. And of course Congress is not offering any extra money to help with meeting this new requirement.
Second, as this great op-ed by Kenneth Green explains, targeting colleges and universities for this problem is obnoxious, because they account for a very small percentage of all illegal downloading and they are already doing a lot, as institutions, to curb it. Most of this infringement happens through commercial ISPs, but there is no parallel push to impose technological mandates and reporting requirements on them. These industries, and some in Congress, are just ganging up on higher education. Or, as Green sums up:
We in the campus community are doing more about P2P and digital piracy — and doing it far better — than the consumer broadband ISPs that provide Internet service to more than 45 percent of American households (more than 35 million homes and small businesses). The RIAA’s singleminded focus on college students — and easily inferred threats to campus officials — misses the larger issue: Digital piracy is a consumer market problem, not simply a campus issue.
So, especially if you are a professor or a student, call your representative and tell the House to back off. Then call your own administrators and make sure your campus is (1) acting to oppose this measure and (2) taking responsible steps to combat illegal downloading.
[Cross-posted at Concurring Opinions]