Higher Ed Needs an IT Policy Task Force

For the second straight year, I addressed the EDUCAUSE/Cornell Institute for Computer Policy and Law, held at Cornell’s beautiful campus. The Institute gathers 50+ higher education information technology (IT) professionals – usually campus CTOs, librarians and legal counsels, and teaches them the substantive particulars of IT policy issues and advises them how to be strong advocates.

My talk this year compared and contrasted the advocacy efforts of higher education institutions around the recently passed (although not yet signed by the President) Higher Education Opportunity Act (also known as the Higher Education Act Reauthorization) and the efforts of public interest groups around the recent FCC decision reprimanding Comcast for engaging in discriminatory network practices. After a year’s long battle to remove content-industry supported language that would require universities and colleges to filter their networks for copyright violations, and instead replace it with language simply requiring the institutions to inform and provide students with anti-piracy policies, the HEOA includes language which requires higher education institutions first to develop “plans to effectively combat” copyright infringement, “including through the use of a variety of technology-based deterrents; and second to “offer alternatives to illegal filesharing.” While neither language specifically requires filtering, it does require Universities and colleges to spend their time and resources: 1) making a plan to filter or use another “technology-based deterrent” to filehsharing and 2) implementing the content-industries anointed but unpopular services like the new Napster or Ruckus.

I observed that the advocacy around the HEOA lacked five critical strategies that were employed in the successful Comcast matter:

  1. strong and constant outreach to the mainstream media and blogosphere;

  2. a compelling message and stories that highlight that message;

  3. an active grassroots network that can be mobilized quickly;

  4. industry and non-profit allies who see their own self-interest in higher ed’s policy problems; and

  5. outreach to every policymaker sympathetic to the cause.

That the HEOA lacked these strategies was no fault of EDUCAUSE and the other DC-based higher education organizations. They are largely lobbying groups that may not have expertise in media and grassroots outreach. Executing these strategies needs the support and resources of the highest levels of higher education.

Given the centrality of IT policy to the core mission of colleges and universities, I called on their Presidents to form a task force to better coordinate and facilitate responses to IT policy and legislation and to plot strategies for affirmative IT legislation and policy, including the five strategies outlined above. If Presidents of major colleges and universities can form a committee solely dedicated to protecting the content industries’ copyrights, they certainly should consider how to protect themselves in an increasingly politicized IT world.

The good news is, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports this week, that some of the universities and colleges are fighting back by refusing to pass on the ever-increasing number of RIAA warning notices, and fighting RIAA subpoenas for identifying information about students. But it will take a larger and concerted effort by the top brass at higher ed institutions to get the content industries to back off.

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