Congress Considers New P2P Law Aimed at Colleges

Q Boyer
WASHINGTON — With concern over content piracy and illegal file-sharing running high in the mainstream and adult entertainment sectors alike, Congress is considering legislation to address the issue — but critics say the bill is unnecessary and improperly aimed at universities and their students.

Deep inside the massive College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 bill, legislation currently under consideration by the House Committee on Education and Labor, is a provision designed to curb illegal file sharing on American college campuses that has some in the educational community fretting over funding.

Posited by its authors as a legislative solution to the rising cost of tuition and other expenses associated with higher education, the bill includes a section entitled “Campus-Based Digital Theft Prevention,” which would amend existing statutes that set the conditions for receiving federal funds earmarked for student financial assistance.

The provision states that “each eligible institution participating in any program under this title shall to the extent practicable … make publicly available to their students and employees, the policies and procedures related to the illegal downloading and distribution of copyrighted materials required … and develop a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property as well as a plan to explore technology-based deterrents to prevent such illegal activity.”

Critics of the legislation worry that institutions could lose their federal financial aid funding if they failed to satisfy the terms of the digital theft prevention provision. In a letter to education and labor committee chairman George Miller, D-Calif., the Association of American Universities (AAU) termed that possibility an “extraordinarily inappropriate and punitive outcome.”

Calling the provision an “entertainment industry proposal,” the AAU argued that the measure was ill-conceived and unnecessary.

“This entertainment industry proposal … would establish the Secretary of Education as an agent of the entertainment industry by requiring the secretary annually to create a list of the 25 colleges and universities with the highest levels of unauthorized peer-to-peer file sharing, based on data supplied by the industry,” the AAU stated in the letter. “The list of the top 25 violators provides no logical basis for initiating federal action. It does not reflect a universal census of violations, nor even an appropriately designed random sample of violations.”

The AAU further asserted that under the provision, the entertainment industry “gets to decide who is a ‘violator.’”

“The entertainment industry assuredly would make these choices to maximize the political and deterrent impact, but the fact remains that the 25 colleges or universities so identified would be designated by the entertainment industry,” the letter stated. “The secretary would be required, under the language of the proposal, to act on the entertainment industry's information and direction. This clearly is an inappropriate role for a cabinet officer of the federal government.”

The bill’s authors defended the digital theft prevention provision and asserted that it would not result in the loss of federal student aid funding for noncompliant institutions.

According to a fact sheet provided to the media by an aide to an education and labor committee member, the bill “does not mandate the use of any programs by colleges.”

“Colleges and universities are simply required to report their campus policies on intellectual property theft, including their penalties, and to develop plans for addressing illegal file-sharing,” the fact sheet stated. “For schools that want additional assistance in stopping illegal file sharing, the bill creates a voluntary grant program.”

Regardless of whether enforcement of the provision could result in loss of federal aid funding, the AAU questioned whether there was any rational basis for creating the new law in the first place.

The AAU complained that the proposal “is aimed only at colleges and universities —which industry leaders admit are responsible for only a small fraction of illegal file sharing — but not other internet service providers whose networks are associated with most of the problem.”