Policy Makers call for University Internet Filters

At today's House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property hearing, titled "An Update - Piracy on University Networks," we heard from legislators that they're very concerned about "piracy" on campus networks.

You should be able to watch the video of the hearing here.

The common theme of the solutions was not only educating students (which all of the witnesses said that they were working on collaboratively), but for campuses to employ technology to filter the packets flowing over the network.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) wondered whether Congress should narrow the DMCA liability safe harbor. The safe harbor works to shield ISPs from liability when they're merely acting as a data conduit, or pipe, instead of actively hosting infringing materials. Schiff asked the panel whether perhaps narrowing the safe harbor as it applies to universities in their ISP capacity, to those that employ filtering technology--if you don't apply filtering, no safe harbor. He also proposed creating a system of "local copyright cops" by using local law enforcement to patrol copyright violations, and using fines generated to finance these local programs.

Along these lines, Rep. Ric Keller (R-FL) warned the university representatives that "the hammer was coming, and probably some time later this session."

We all know that packet filters don't work for policing copyright. This isn't just because, technically, the data can be encrypted so you can't tell one kind of data packet from another. No, it's more because packet filters cannot discern the intent of the user of a copyrighted work, and whether or not they have right to use that work--through fair use or other legal purposes.

That's not to say that illicit file trading doesn't occur, but let's look at where we're focusing on at this hearing--we're talking about the learning institutions of the United States. These are places where ideas are discovered, shared, compared, analyzed, and transformed into new ideas. Is this "learning atmosphere" an excuse for not paying for or otherwise legally obtaining content, of course not. But is it today's version of trading mix tapes and borrowing movies?

Members of the committee and the witnesses discussed the music services that are being sold to campuses and their students as alternatives to illicit file sharing. These allow students to essentially purchase meal-plan-like buffets of music and movies. Carry Sherman said during the hearing that these services only cost students a few dollars a month. One major problem with these services is that almost none of them work with the leading media player, the iPod, or as flexibly as students would want to use them. Why would students buy into a service that doesn't work with the leading device in the market? Can that even be considered a true alternative?

How about other business models? An innovative new service, AMIE Street, actually incentivizes users for recommending and promoting tracks by crediting them with a piece of the action. There's a new idea that builds communities--communities like those that already exist on university campuses.

And if all-you-can-eat content is available for just a few dollars a month, as noted during the hearing, why not just collect the money on a per student basis, and distribute the money to the artists/labels, and allow the students to "file share" as much as they want? For all the funds that universities are reallocating to re-engineer their networks, paying into a collective would make much more sense (especially when the labels are already tracking how popular individual songs are on p2p networks, they could easily allocate royalties to appropriate artists). Maybe it's not about collecting and distributing money?

Unfortunately, the point of this hearing was less about finding actual solutions to the high-content-demand on university campuses, and more of a "notice of intent" from certain members of the committee to ISPs (commercial or educational) that the content industry intends to drain your safe harbor.

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