Aug 20 2007

Perils of Peer-to-Peer

Educators find themselves in the middle of a crackdown on student downloads.

Campus IT administrators are increasingly being pulled into a legal battle between the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and their students.

The RIAA is pulling higher education institutions into its attempt to crack down on what it considers illegal downloading of copyrighted files. The association contends that college students account for a disproportionately large number of illegal music downloads — more than 1.3 billion last year — and that more than half of college students download music and movies illegally and share them with friends.

The RIAA started with takedown notices, which required you to search students’ digital belongings on your servers for copyrighted files and take them down. Then it asked you to divulge the names associated with the Internet protocol addresses.

This year, the RIAA has sent out six waves of pre-litigation settlement letters to college and university administrators and asked them to deliver the notices to offending students based on the IP addresses in the letters. The letters offer students a chance to settle what they owe at a discounted rate and keep the association from suing them. Its July campaign consisted of more than 400 letters to 23 colleges. According to the RIAA, the majority of the schools that have received the letters have forwarded them to students.

Congress has also gotten into the act by sending out surveys and holding hearings to determine if universities were doing enough to prevent illegal file downloads.

Several academic institutions have responded by cooperating with the RIAA. Others have been reluctant to act. There is a school of thought that Internet service providers should not intercede in a legal issue between users and content owners.

Wherever you stand on the issue, you need a policy on peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing. If the RIAA gets its way, it will be your school’s legal obligation to police students’ downloading activity. Responding to pressure from the entertainment industry, lawmakers are threatening sanctions against colleges that don’t make their best effort to thwart piracy. They’re also considering expanding safe harbor requirements, which spell out the minimal efforts a college must make to combat piracy to avoid litigation under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This could force colleges to incorporate technology to block P2P file sharing. From a pragmatic perspective, all this downloading activity may be clogging your school’s network.

Higher ed institutions are taking steps to crack down on illegal downloading, ranging from banning all P2P traffic from its networks, to threatening to suspend students’ download privileges if they are caught downloading copyrighted material, to installing software that blocks illegal downloads on the network. Some provide legal means of sharing music by signing up with services such as Napster and Cdigix and offering students free downloads.

Many schools are employing a less sweeping policy of packet shaping, which restricts the amount of network traffic allotted to P2P applications, in order to allow for the legitimate uses of P2P file sharing.

As detailed in “The Human Side of IT” on Page 45, the University of Maryland suspends the network access of repeat offenders of its acceptable use policy pending a meeting to discuss the violation. The Office of Information Technology may also refer students who refuse to comply to the university’s Office of Rights and Responsibilities, but prefers to prevent illegal use through social measures, such as grass-roots efforts by student government legislators. The university also provides students with a legal music service.


  • You should be responsible for the activity that takes place across your network.
  • If the RIAA is correct, your institution could be legally liable for any copyright infringement by virtue of serving as the ISP.
  • Having a written policy may help protect your institution from litigation, should laws be passed that require colleges to take action.