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University’s digital piracy policy aimed at protecting students and avoiding liability

Puget Sound occupies a precarious position between copyright owners and students who use peer-to-peer file sharing for illegal downloading. The administration’s goal is to protect students from the consequences of copyright infringement while avoiding liability.

Most students are aware of P2P file sharing. LimeWire, Kazaa, Ares Galaxy, Gnutella and BitTorrent are familiar names. The students who do not participate in illegal file sharing have friends who do. In January 2011, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation reported that 17.53 percent of U.S. Internet bandwidth is dedicated to illegal downloading.

The Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) have been fighting this phenomenon for over a decade. P2P sharing presents a threat to jobs in the music and film industries. They’ve been backed into a corner and are highly aggressive. “They like to make examples of people,” Assistant Dean of Students Kate Cohn said. “They also like to use bait.”

The RIAA and the MPAA often target college campuses with network audits. When they detect illegal file sharing, they file a complaint with Technology Services. Tech Services Network Manager Dave Hamwey connects the reported IP address to the registered MAC address and obtains the student’s name.

The student’s name is sent to Student Affairs, and this is where Cohn steps in. Cohn stressed that all reports are considered “potential violations” until after she talks to the students involved. The student’s perspective is important because, according to Cohn, the reports are not foolproof. “Detections of use are accurate   about 90-95 percent of the time,” she said. “I like to give students the benefit of the doubt.”

A common sanction is a meeting with Hamwey and what Cohn calls a “clean  machine test.” Hamwey said that over half of the students sent to him think  they’ve uninstalled the P2P software, but it’s usually still running in the  background.

There are two major reasons behind the University’s response to P2P sharing. “What I’m concerned about is the negative impact for campus—the threat of viruses and the slowing of the bandwidth—which prevents students from using the network for legitimate purposes,” Cohn said. “Also, we want our students to be ethical.”

One student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the University probably saved him from thousands of dollars in legal fees. But he doesn’t see P2P sharing as an ethical dilemma. He said he supports the artists, but not the corporations behind them. He downloaded what he called “a fair amount” of copyrighted movies and songs.

About three years ago, the University invested in a Network Access Control system called Safe Connect, which is supposed to prevent access to the campus network if P2P software is detected.

“We do not monitor for content, but we do monitor types of traffic,” Chief Technology Officer William Morse said. Safe Connect also has pop-up notifications that tell you when there’s an illegal sharing program running on your computer.

For some, Tech Services’ attempts to educate students leave something to be desired. A student with past affiliation with Tech Services said that he was not even aware that RIAA/MPAA did audits until it happened to someone he knew.

“TS seems to say publicly, ‘File sharing is bad.’ And that’s about it. I think the students would benefit from knowing how their actions on the Internet affect the University legally. I think the students need to get it in their heads that the University isn’t trying to screw them over. They are providing free Internet, after all. Beggars can’t be choosers,” he said. He declined to state his name due to the sensitive nature of the subject.

“This can easily trip someone up, but it’s so avoidable,” Morse said. It may be avoidable, but education about Internet security issues is never mandatory until after the transgression has been committed. Students are responsible for educating themselves. Director of Client Support & Educational Technology Services Cindy Riche admitted that the Tech Services table isn’t overwhelmingly popular at orientation.

Tech Services complies with the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 by providing a list of legal alternatives for downloading media, but most students and some administrators were not even aware of this list’s existence.

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