Focus on file-sharing presents problems, hypocrisy

    File-sharing networks have had an illustrious legacy at UCSD: The campus was one of the first universities to delegitimize Napster; and students thereafter utilizing Gnutella, Kazaa or Morpheus for their music procurement needs found their access to such networks blocked intermittently over the past three years.

    Initially, Residential Network made the argument that regardless of the legal status of the files students were trading, the file-sharing networks were hopelessly snarling residential Internet connections. Back in the days of Napster, much of the Internet infrastructure in the dorms consisted of first-generation cable modems running on existing coaxial lines, which made for jams worse than I-5 after a crane mishap (well, maybe not that bad).

    That was back when the Record Industry Association of America was suing Napster, not college students, in its efforts to stop the online orgy of music trading. Two weeks ago, however, the RIAA sued four college students for thousands of dollars for every song they shared; they ended up settling to pay somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000 for their copyright infringement. This came on the heels of two important court decisions: The first required that an Internet service provider divulge the identity of a user that had been sharing files. The second was a decision holding that pure peer-to-peer networks without central file lists like Morpheus were not liable for the actions of the users of their programs.

    Regardless of how evil college students make the RIAA out to be, under these circumstances, they have only one logical course of action: Go after the individual users of the networks. And college students turn out to be pretty ripe targets. Unlike home users of DSL or cable modems, they are not well-connected adults or lawyers willing to fight. Furthermore, the Internet addresses of college computers remain largely static, so if the RIAA went after a certain address, it could remain largely assured that the infringer was still there.

    And so it might not be surprising that the past few weeks have witnessed ResNet threatening to shut down student Internet connections after receiving e-mails from the RIAA detailing the files shared from specific computers on the UCSD network. The RIAA e-mails detail first the current status of the law — Internet providers notified of infringement on their network are responsible for shutting it down — then goes on to list the Internet protocol address of the targeted student, followed by a comprehensive list of copyright-infringing files shared.

    And so, in happy compliance with the law, ResNet forwarded the RIAA e-mails to the targeted students, threatening connection revocation and pointing students to a link threatening disciplinary action for ResNet violations if they did not respond to this notice. One student got her connection shut down for several days without notice because ResNet was unaware of her e-mail address. Another student reportedly was forced to erase the files on his hard drive.

    No doubt ResNet is in an unenviable place. On one hand, they are forced to act as the enforcement agents of a corporate entity, but on the other, failure to comply opens the University of California up to a legal battle it no doubt doesn’t want at this time. As easy as it is to curse ResNet openly every time they block file sharing software or go after students, however, one has to remember that by complying with the RIAA’s demands, the university is in effect making students anonymous and protecting them from further legal action.

    A historical analogy may be in order here: Back in the late ’60s, when protest was convulsing most of the UC campuses, the UC Regents and UCSD Chancellor William McGill were largely demonized by protesters and the student body as part of a racist system that insisted on the teaching of conservative propaganda and the oppression of student activism. In Chancellor McGill’s book, “”The Year of the Monkey,”” he strongly asserts that his aims and the aims of the UC Regents were to act as moderating forces to protect students and academics on the campuses from a state hostile to their current existence. California under Gov. Ronald Reagan, and San Diego in particular, were much more conservative and more than willing to affect drastic change on the universities to root out “”communism.”” Students were railing against the very system that was protecting them from the outside world.

    This does not, however, excuse the actions of the Regents when they censured Chancellor McGill for defending the noted philosopher Herbert Marcuse, by then a professor at UCSD who was publicly regarded by Reagan as a symbol of evil communism. And likewise, it does not excuse ResNet from the fact that by consenting to be the RIAA’s agent, they are effectively setting a precedent for the external monitoring and enforcement of UCSD network traffic.

    While they are theoretically constrained by law to shut down copyright violations on the network, UCSD could use “”service provider”” clauses of current law to state that they are a neutral communicator not responsible for transient material on their network and refuse to divulge student information. This is, after all, a law with enforcement precedent that still borders on the hazy to nonexistent when it comes to actual liability, no doubt because no large entity with the appropriate legal resources has yet to pick a fight with the RIAA.

    This may all seem rather silly and pointless. After all, the students were caught rather openly sharing illegitimate files, and the university is pretty much obliged to take care of it or let the students pick their own fight with the RIAA. But the time will come — mark this writer’s words — where the only way to stop file sharing will be for the university to watch the exact content of information going through the network.

    Already, there are programs like “”Freenet”” that make it impossible for anyone to tell who is storing what, because users allocate a portion of their hard drives to automated encrypted network storage that only has parts of files on it. Thus, the users of the network have no idea what they are sharing. The only way for the RIAA to tell whether or not students are infringing copyright would be to pry open their computers or get somebody who can monitor suspicious traffic — namely, ResNet.

    And if an academic institution that operates on the principle of free trade in information chooses to enforce corporate interests rather than protect the privacy of its own students, that will be quite a shame.

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