Stanford U. Questions Merits Of House Bill On Illegal File-sharing

This story was written by Andrew Valencia, The Stanford Daily
In the wake of a recent wave of file-sharing lawsuits against Stanford students, Congress is now close to accepting provisions to its education funding bill which would require universities to dramatically step up anti-piracy measures.

The College Affordability and Opportunity Act, which passed easily through the House of Representatives last month, included provisions which would require universities "to develop plans to provide alternative music and movie services and implement technological measures to deter illegal file sharing."

In November, when a Senate version of the bill would have made compliance with the file-sharing provision a requirement for federal financial aid eligibility, Stanford President John Hennessy joined about a dozen other representatives on behalf of higher education in urging congressional leaders to reject the bill. Now, the House version of the bill excludes the provision on file-sharing entirely, and Congress will have to reach a compromise regarding whether to hold onto the provision.

According to Lauren Schoenthaler, Staff Counsel of the Office of the General Counsel, while Stanford does not condone illegal file-sharing, requiring universities to use technological means to stop illegal file-sharing could intrude on academic processes.

"The House version that was just passed still includes a requirement that universities consider technology-based deterrents to combat file-sharing," Schoenthaler wrote in an email to The Daily. "While we at Stanford already use technology in our efforts to combat unlawful file-sharing in our Peer-to-Peer Advisory program, we are not convinced that the commercial software applications to stop file-sharing are completely effective, nor are those software applications able to distinguish between lawful and unlawful file-sharing."

In January, 15 Stanford students were served pre-litigation notices from legal representatives of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) demanding they pay settlement fines of approximately $3,000 for illegally downloading music. The RIAA, as well as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), have lobbied Congress in support of the file-sharing provisions of the bill.

According to Paul Keser, Information Services Specialist with the Stanford University Information Security Office (ISO), Stanford currently does not filter through Internet traffic in an effort to block illegal file-sharing. To do so, he said, would require either monitoring content or blocking all file-sharing, legal or illegal. He claimed the recording and motion picture industries recommend technologies which block legal file-sharing as well as illegal.

"All person-to-person file-sharing is blocked unless you white-list known legal content," Keser said concerning the industry-recommended software. "That seems to be where the recording industry wants to go."

ISO Information Systems Specialist David Hoffman stated that, with regard to Stanford illegal file-sharing, the University has no technological means by which to measure how widespread it is on campus.

"We really have no way to tell," Hoffman said in an email to The Daily. "We can measure the amount of traffic, but there's no way to know what's legal and what's not without having someone pry into the contents, and we don't do that. The only indication we have of illegal activity is the DMCA complaints we get from copyright holders."

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is the principal means by which the recording industry files lawsuits against accused illegal file-sharers. At Stanford, as with most universities, the DMCA is the first step by which the industry alerts schools that a student is engaging in illegal file-sharing.

"Unfortunately, DMCA complaints coe in against students almost every day," said Schoenthaler. "I estimate that Stanford students have collectively paid over $100,000 to settle their unlawful file-sharing claims with recording artists. I'm not convinced that the proposed legislation would have any impact on the number of demands the record companies are bringing."

Over the next few months, Congress will attempt to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill, during which time they will decide whether to include the provisions on file-sharing. If the provisions pass and the bill is interpreted to require colleges to adopt technologies to deter illegal file-sharing, Keser said that Stanford would be in danger of losing its current "free harbor" Internet provider status, through which the school responds to complaints but does not monitor content. In his opinion, this provision constitutes a severe imposition on universities.

"It looks like the recording industry is trying to force this on the University...and to try to make the University liable," Keser said. "If you wanted to share files, if it wasn't for the legal aspects, we wouldn't care."
© 2008 The Stanford Daily via U-WIRE