• United States
by Ann Harrison

Put file-trading kids in jail, Congress hears

Apr 03, 20033 mins
Enterprise Applications

* Rep. John Carter wants college kids locked up for downloading music

In a recent hearing of the Congressional Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property, Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) suggested jailing college students who download copyrighted music.

This is not a total surprise. Prisons are a big industry in Texas, and the prison guard unions are very strong political entities. Here in California, they are some of the top contributors to political campaigns and wield enormous political power.

The criminal justice system was a pretty steady gig for “Lock em up” Carter who served for 20 years as a state district judge in conservative Williamson County. Carter helpfully pointed out that kids who copy music or movie files are committing a felony under the U.S. code. He suggested that if selected students were prosecuted and given three years in prison, this would act as an effective deterrent.

Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, told “Wired News” that he was not enthusiastic about the idea. “I can’t see turning millions of college students into criminals,” he said. “We’d have to build a lot of new prisons to hold the law breakers engaged in piracy of copyrighted materials.”

Spanier testified before the congressional subcommittee that thousands of students at Penn and other universities around the country download copyrighted materials.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which supports criminal prosecution of file traders, sent letters in October to 2,300 colleges and universities asking them to stem what they perceived as rampant copyright violations. The American Council on Education reports that educational institutions have taken steps to address file trading on campuses.

But the organization’s general counsel, Sheldon Steinbach, pointed out that there is no simple answer to file trading by student who often have been engaged in this activity for years and see nothing wrong with it. Student tuition is paying for high bandwidth networks after all, and administrations have to walk a fine line between student expectations and network overload.

Penn State is doing some sensible things to address this issue, and some not so sensible things. Students at the school are limited to 1.5G byte of inbound or outbound traffic per week. If they exceed that allotment, they are given a series of warnings and after the third warning their network access is terminated.

Carnegie Mellon University reports that it is receiving an average of four complaints per week from groups like the RIAA and Universal Studios. Students who are targeted in these allegations also lose their network access for a period of time.

Rationing bandwidth is becoming a common practice at universities. But unfortunately, Penn State also cuts off a student’s network access if it simply receive a letter from the RIAA alleging that the student has violated copyright. This is a knee jerk reaction. The RIAA should not be able to dictate university network policy with one allegation of copyright violation. Better to have the school investigate the allegation before shutting off the student’s access and give the student a chance to purchase their own bandwidth for file trading.

Spanier also suggested that universities might look into setting up licensing agreements with music services to give student free and authorized access to music. But chances are that some students would still want to choose their own source for files and continue file trading as usual.

Overall, threatening to jail students is not going to stop file trading. It’s bad enough criminalizing an entire online subculture without threatening a whole community of young students with felony convictions.