A digital music downloading service geared toward college students has come under fire for allegedly using the popular social networking site Facebook.com to acquire the eMail addresses of thousands of unsuspecting students and using them to drum up business with universities.

The company–Herndon, Va.-based Ruckus Network–reportedly set up an account on Facebook for an imaginary student. Built as an online meeting place for college-age students, the site enables users to create “groups,” where students can discuss shared interests and connect with friends. By creating its own group on Facebook, the company’s critics contend, Ruckus was able to obtain the eMail addresses of almost every student who joined this group. Later, the company allegedly used those same addresses to connect with students, encouraging them to sign up for its online music download service and misleading them into thinking the service was affiliated with their respective universities.

On Sept. 5, a person named “Brody Ruckus” activated an account on Facebook by using a Georgia Tech eMail address. Georgia Tech had recently entered into an agreement with Ruckus for students to use its service on campus. “Brody Ruckus” then reportedly lured more than 400,000 students into joining its group by promising a video of a sexual encounter, before Facebook deleted the account.

Georgia Tech officials declined to comment.

Only days after the Facebook profile of Brody Ruckus was deleted, students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) began receiving messages from Ruckus via Facebook. The messages read: “Beginning this week, UW has become a partner school with the online music service called Ruckus through our shared connection to the Internet2 network.” The message went on to say that everyone at the school was eligible for free, unlimited downloads from Ruckus’ digital music library. Students at the school already had an account, the message said. All they needed to do was activate it.

But UW officials say Ruckus never established any such partnership with the school to provide free music to students. “Students didn’t know that,” says Brian Rust, senior administrative program specialist at UW’s Department of Information Technology. “They assumed it was true without knowing what, if any, arrangement there was.”

Within 24 hours, Rust said, 1,100 UW students had signed up with Ruckus and were downloading music. Because the school had no agreement with the company, additional bandwidth was not dedicated to support the spike in network traffic, he said. As a result, the university’s network slowed to a crawl. To resolve the problem, Rust said, UW had to “rate-shape,” or limit the amount of traffic stemming from students’ use of the online music service.

According to Robert Hayden, the school’s IT operations manager for housing, university officials returned to work the following Monday to find eMail messages from students asking them to partner with Ruckus.

Hayden says Ruckus had eMailed UW students who had signed up for the program, telling them, “If you are interested in supporting our cause, please do your part by eMailing the housing departments [and] letting them know that you would like to have Ruckus partnered with UW.” At the bottom of the message–a copy of which was obtained by eSchool News–was the contact information for Hayden.

“They denied sending both of the letters,” said Hayden. Ruckus has since admitted sending the eMail messages but claims they were isolated incidents by an overzealous employee.

The practice of using online social networks to market new products or business ventures is nothing new. For example, on MySpace.com, users are frequently deluged with friend requests from unfamiliar people seeking to promote their friends’ bands or pornographic web sites. Recently, it was revealed that popular YouTube contributor “Lonelygirl15” was actually an actress hired to star in a series of videos made by a pair of independent filmmakers. The revelation caused an outcry on the internet.

Still, critics say, what Ruckus did crosses the line.

“Basically they were blackmailing the university by having all the students advocate on their behalf,” Hayden says. “In my opinion, they engaged in sleazy and unethical tactics in an effort to drum up business.”

In hindsight, Ruckus–which would not reveal how many universities or students use its online service–admits its unorthodox marketing campaign was ill-advised.

“It was an exercise conducted by one of our marketing teams. It wasn’t something we had any real designs around,” said Ruckus President and Chief Executive Officer Mike Bebel in an interview with eSchool News. “It took on a life of its own. It was a good learning exercise for us, but not something that we would repeat.”