College campuses still hotbeds of illegal activity

A House subcommittee explored how to stop illegal file-sharing and downloading on college campuses without violating students’ privacy in a hearing that yielded some ideas but no easy answers on Thursday.

“I would very much like to tell you today that we have made progress on this issue,” Recording Industry Assn. of America prexy Cary Sherman told the Subcommittee on Courts, Internet and Intellectual Property. “In many ways we have. But, unfortunately, this illegal activity still permeates college life, and only a handful of university administrations have begun to take seriously the reality of its repercussions.”

Sherman cited recent data showing that more than half of students illegally download or share music and movies, and that they do it more frequently than the rest of the population. The chief vehicle for the piracy: online peer-to-peer services, like the now-defunct Grokster, which the Supreme Court said in a 2005 landmark ruling could be held liable for its users’ illegitimate activities.

Some campus networks are reluctant to ban use of P2P services, citing concerns for privacy, academic freedom and the possibility that some P2P use is legit.

Sherman said most P2P use is not legit and argued that universities could use filtering technologies to block illegitimate use. But opinions differ on how well existing filtering technology can discern legit from illegit uses.

John Vaughn, exec VP for the Assn. of American Universities, said colleges have been taking the problem “seriously” and have taken a number of steps to help address it. But online piracy is a massive phenomenon not limited to university environments, he added.

“Students increasingly come to college with P2P file-sharing experiences already well ingrained,” Vaughn said. “Moreover, P2P file-sharing is widespread on the commercial networks serving a great many more customers that the roughly 17 million colleges students served by higher education. This is not to excuse higher education but simply to point out that illegal file sharing is a widespread problem that no sector has been able to eliminate. But I also know of no sector that has put more time, money and effort into combating illegal file sharing than has higher education.”

Sherman noted that some new filtering technologies, like Red Lambda’s cGrid, show great promise for monitoring P2P traffic without violating privacy. Vaughn, on the other hand, noted that filtering technologies are expensive, pointing to one system that costs $1 million to install and roughly $250,000 a year to operate.

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