November 20, 2007

Bill Targets Copyright Laws

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The ante on university Internet copyright controversies rose late last week when the House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee unanimously approved a bill that would require all universities participating in federal financial aid programming to pursue active surveillance policies cracking down on illegal downloading and peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing.
As an over 700-page bill to renew the Higher Education Act of 1965 works its way through Congress, a few short paragraphs on “Campus Based Digital Theft Prevention” comprise Section 494 of the legislation. The provisions in this section have drawn sharp criticism from a wide array of academic observers such as Kenneth C. Green — founding director of The Campus Computing Project and. Accusers are calling the provisions essentially unfunded mandates and extortion.
Proposed by top House Democrats, the provisions are a softer version of more explicitly punitive earlier proposals that drew angry backlash from universities like University of Michigan and MIT.
New measures call for university programs to educate students about Internet copyright laws, a university-subsidized legal alternative to unsanctioned hubs and P2P programs — such as Cornell’s DC++ — and the installation of network surveillance programs to catch students who continue to violate university file-share parameters.
In his article entitled, “Swiftboarding Higher Education on P2P,” Green contended this is a case of federal compliance with damaging lobby pressures. Green argued it is extortion if Section 494 forces universities to purchase legal alternatives such as Napster, which enjoy strong ties to the content industry.
Concerned members of the university system are gearing up to resist what they deem a damaging, anti-democratic process of the content industry lobby, in this case, the Motion Picture Industry of America, trying to externalize costs through the legal system, rather than reform.
The content industry might argue American legal ethics are at stake if the provisions do not roll through. Prof. Wendy Seltzer, fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Technology and Society, referenced an infamous 1982 analagy that Jack Valenti, former president of the Motion Picture Association of American, made between media copying technology and a Boston serial killer:
“I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.”
“[Content industry executives],” she explained, “are good at telling stories. But the University has a stronger one to tell here, I think … Special interest throws its issues into legislation of general interest, and hopes it gets pushed through while no one is looking. That is why it’s important for students and any concerned citizens to voice their concern right now, while there is still a chance to amend this [Section 494] out of the bill.”
If the overall bill Seltzer and others have emphasized, “is supposed to be helping students access higher eduction, it’s fairly counterproductive to be slipping provisions into the bill which would burden the universities [both financially and intellectually] in providing the fullest range of services.”
One of the most incendiary and misunderstood questions to come out of the Section 494 debates is whether or not under the bill’s current language Congress would have the power to pull all federal financial aid funding to all students at universities who refuse to comply with the surveillance measures the provision outlines.
Part of the reason for confusion said Steven Worona ’68, Educause Director of Policy and Networking, is that the language of the provision remains obscure.
“On the one hand, the MPAA is releasing press releases indicating how pleased they are; campuses will be ‘forced’ to take this situation seriously. But when campuses say it is inappropriate to force them to take these actions, the Committee says, ‘no, no, no, you are not being forced.’”
Seltzer did not think the exact meanings of this bill necessarily change the ultimate policy trajectory if provisions remain intact:
“I would imagine, if [the power to retract federal financial aid funding] is not in this bill, it’s the next step. The reason the sponsors are asking that these issues [of student education and surveillance] be explored is so that they can go back and say those who failed to explore [the mandated alternatives] should meet punishment.”
Worona echoed the sentiment that Sec­tion 494 ought to make its intentions clear and its plans for discipline reasonable:
“It strikes me as a silly game that is being planned here. If Congress wants to recommend [a policy], recommend it. If they want to mandate something, then mandate it, but make sure the repercussions are not draconian in nature.”
Beyond that, advocate organizations such as Educause that are vigorously fighting the legislation do not think the university sphere qualifies as the right sphere for content industry battles in the first place. The point is, the content industry is after the wrong violators. Worona explains:
“Even by the MPAA’s own statistics … 44 percent of Internet infringement is attributable to college students. Only 20 percent of college students live on campus. So targeting campus networks is not even a cost-effective method [of targeting copyright violators] … At least 90 percent of the problems arise from commercial Internet Service Providers, and the commercial ISPs appear not to care about this issue at all! In fact, they compete with one another in advertising to imply who can offer better, faster use of these illegal P2P services.”
Prof. Tracy Mitrano ’95, Cornell’s director of information technology policy, has also voiced frustration over what she feels are the misdirected energies of the copyright debate, which has focused in large part on the reactive role of American universities in defending students against legal actions by the content industry.
“What the copyright wars are about are laws and technologies, business practices and social norms that are in tension with each other, and need fixing at a much, much higher level than finger pointing in higher education. The content owners must love it, divide and conquer.”
Randy Lariar ’08, president of the Cornell Democrats, who is enrolled in Mitrano’s Information Science 515, Culture, Law and Politics of the Internet this fall and admits that effective student engagement in controversial legislation such as Section 494 has a long way to go, no matter how relevant to their own lives the material may be.
“”[Provisions like Section 494] are complicated on purpose,” Lariar said, “but there are still [a lot of steps left] before anything is settled.”
“I think the best thing students can do is to get involved in these national organizations that are fighting right now. Participating in the actions of organizations that actually do know what’s going on, who have the resources and networks, is key … One person who is upset alone is not going to get stuff done … It’s about smart activism,” Lariar said.