Proposal to link aid to file sharing prevention

by Beacon Staff • November 7, 2007

Federal financial aid would become tied to colleges' efforts to deter their students from illegal file sharing if Congress approves an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965.,A bill now before Congressional committee could give teeth to legislators' efforts to force colleges to crack down on their students' copyright law violations.

Federal financial aid would become tied to colleges' efforts to deter their students from illegal file sharing if Congress approves an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965.

The colleges on the Recording Industry Association of America's annual list of the 25 most prolific file-sharing colleges will have to tighten their file-sharing policies to continue receiving federal financial aid, and for their students to remain eligible to receive federal aid individually, said Alexa Marrero, the committee's communications director.

The act mandates all students be informed of the consequences of illegal file sharing and that colleges use technology to block illegal downloading, Marrero said. The proposal is currently being debated by the House of Representatives' Education and Labor Committee and is not yet scheduled to go to debate in the House.

Many Emerson students depend on federal loans and grants to help pay for school, said David Rosen, Emerson's vice president of public affairs, although the college has never appeared on the RIAA's list.

"We get almost nothing in terms of federal money because we're not a research institution," he said. "But we would definitely be affected by it because of the money that goes directly to the students."

The proposal continues efforts by the RIAA and the Motion Picture Association of America to convince Congress to restrict file sharing on college campuses. In July, a similar proposal by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid failed amid opposition from universities and students across the nation. Reid pulled his own amendment out of committee without public explanation.

Four percent of the more than 8,400 copyright violation lawsuits filed in 2004 and 2005, or 329 total, targeted college students, according to a report on the RIAA's Web site.

On Oct. 29, Boston University's student newspaper, The Daily Free Press, ran an editorial condemning the House's amendment, which was introduced by two Republican congressmen, Ric Keller of Florida and Buck McKeon of California. The editorial called the amendment misplaced in an act that should focus on increasing federal financial aid to students.

BU was ranked 15th on last year's RIAA list of schools with the most copyright law violations.

On Oct. 10, Harvard's student newspaper, The Crimson, published a news story critical of the amendment. Marrero said both newspapers were exaggerating the connection between federal funding and illegal file sharing.

"It's unfair to use this overdue update [of the law] as a scare tactic when it's just about disclosure," Marrero said. "This section is part of a lengthy list of policies. We're simply adding among the list of things that schools disclose information about file sharing to students."

Matt Negrin, Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Free Press, said the editorial staff emphasized the file sharing clause because it is a small but important part of the act politicians who don't read every line of new legislation could overlook.

"While the compliance standard may seem low to Congress, it could be exploited by the RIAA," Negrin said. "Our editorial discussed this link but implied no new connections. Our editorial board's view is also that the clause is inconsistent with the act's larger goal of making college more accessible."

The Higher Education Act of 1965 mandates that Congress provide financial assistance to American colleges and students. Marrero said the committee added the provision now to adapt to changing technologies available to today's college students.

Emerson's Student Code of Conduct declares copyright infringement a violation of school policy, and warns of the "severe" criminal penalties state and federal copyright laws carry. It does not, however, list a specific course of collegiate or federal disciplinary action for illegal downloading.

Christine Hughes, vice president and general counsel for Emerson, said she would not speculate on the college's plan to curb illegal file sharing if the bill is passed, because the content of the legislation could change during the approval process.

Last year, the college's IT department contacted sophomore Aviv Russ after he downloaded an episode of the HBO series Entourage. The film major said that within hours of the transfer, HBO contacted Emerson threatening legal action. To avoid a lawsuit, the school's lawyers agreed to handle the ramifications if he deleted all of the episodes and agreed not to file share on Emerson's network.

"HBO wanted to find out my name but the school wouldn't let them," Russ said. "At home, they could have sued me straightforward but the school slapped my wrist and said, 'Don't do it again.'"

Adam Travis, Emerson's network and information security manager, who sent the e-mail to Russ said he generally notifies students who have been targeted for illegal file sharing on campus and confirmed Emerson's legal counsel handles each case after the student is notified.

Steven L. Worona, director of policy and networking programs for EDUCAUSE, a non-profit organization that helps colleges employ information technology, said he opposes the revisions because they don't provide recourse for colleges to dispute the RIAA's discovery of illegal downloading, even if the school records fewer transgressions.

The RIAA's list is unfair to larger schools, like BU, he said, because it does not account for their larger student populations.

"[The bill] takes, at face value, the infringement claims from copyright holders," Worona said.

Liz Kennedy, spokeswoman for the RIAA, did not return repeated requests for comment.

Marrero said institutions like BU and Harvard have also reached out to the committee to help them find the right ways to keep students from downloading copyrighted material.

Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project, a continuing study of the role of information technology in American colleges and universities, called Congress' decision to target college students as "digital pirates" unfounded.

"Congress has been swiftboated by the RIAA and MPAA, who show students as the biggest violators," he said. "Colleges are far more conscientious about informing students than say, a consumer broadcast network like ATT, but key members of Congress have been convinced that the campus community is the culprit."