University of Florida (UF) officials say they’re simply enforcing the law. But civil libertarians say the school itself has become an enforcer for the recording industry.

In the annals of the online music wars, the university might well go down as one of the Recording Industry Association of America’s most loyal allies.

Chris Russell, an 18-year-old freshman, and some of his dorm buddies got their lesson last fall. As he was downloading Metallica tunes in his room, Russell suddenly lost his internet connection.

Logging onto a university site, he was informed by a pop-up message that he’d violated the school’s downloading policy and his internet service would be suspended for 30 minutes.

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    Russell was collared by new university software called ICARUS, or Integrated Control Application for Restricting User Services.

    “It’s a pain in the neck,” Russell said of the program. “If I hear a song on the radio I like, I try to download it.”

    It’s precisely such behavior that riles the music industry, which claims online song swapping is largely responsible for a 31-percent drop in CD sales over the past three years.

    The industry has used lawsuits and warning letters to try to thwart the practice at colleges and universities. It has also promoted commercial downloading services, including a recent deal with Penn State to offer the new Napster to students.

    University of Florida officials say they’re open to a deal with a commercial service like Napster but say their students wouldn’t pay more than 50 cents a song. The Penn State deal will cost students there a buck for every track they want to keep.

    In the spring of 2003, the pressure from record companies hit critical mass at UF. The school was getting about 40 notices a month asking it to disconnect students for illegal downloading. About 1,000 cases involving violations of copyright rules were clogging the school’s judicial system. An estimated 40 percent of dorm residents were downloading illegally.

    So network administrators went to work on ICARUS, which debuted last summer and affects the 7,500 of Florida’s 48,500 students who live on campus–and thus use its high-speed network.

    ICARUS scans the network to ensure that students are not pulling down music or video content using peer-to-peer software. For a first violation, transgressors lose internet access for 30 minutes and must watch a 10-minute interactive web program on copyright law. A second violation bars students from the internet for five days, and a third can result in a lengthy ban and could lead to a written reprimand.

    More than 100 students have been caught downloading twice, the school says, and so far there have been no three-time violators.

    Paul David Einslen, president of a dormitory at UF, said most students initially were upset but now accept that they can’t use the university system to download movies, music, and software.

    Many students are nevertheless concerned, he said, “about the whole scanning of their computer with Big Brother monitoring and watching everything.”

    That doesn’t necessarily mean students are buying more compact discs, though.

    “Students are pretty smart. They’ll come up with some way to circumvent it. They’ll just go off campus and do it,” said Charles Scales, owner of Hyde & Zeke, a music store near campus. Scales said he hasn’t seen sales rise post-ICARUS.

    Rob Bird, UF’s coordinator of network services who co-developed the program, says he’s received inquiries about it from more than 110 universities, eight internet service providers, and 23 private companies. He says the school will license the program to other institutions soon.

    Cary Sherman, president of the RIAA, praised ICARUS as an “impressive” home-grown solution.

    But Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties group, said universities should realize their computer networks are to serve students and “not to be an enforcement arm of the recording industry.”

    Many schools prefer a middle ground.

    Oberlin College in Ohio, like scores of colleges and universities, uses network software that greatly reduces peer-to-peer traffic but doesn’t eliminate it.

    “Thus, for now, we are sidestepping the censorship issue,” said John Bucher, the school’s information technology director.

    Students at the University of California-Berkeley are allowed to download 5 gigabytes worth of data each week, said Brad Andrews, manager of residential computing for the 6,000 students living in campus housing.

    “We don’t outlaw peer-to-peer sharing; we limit bandwidth. We don’t monitor content; we do care about your usage,” he said. However, if the university receives a notice from the music industry that a student is sharing copyrighted material, students are asked to remove the material.

    A survey by the Campus Computing Project shows that about 80 percent of public universities and 78 percent of private universities have campus codes of conduct that forbid downloading copyrighted material, said Kenneth Green, founder of the project.

    While not condoning the downloading of music files by college students, Green said media industries “continue to focus on college students because they represent a large, easily identifiable, and easily targeted population.”

    Links:

    University of Florida
    http://www.ufl.edu

    Electronic Frontier Foundation
    http://www.eff.org

    Campus Computing Project
    http://campuscomputing.net