Blown To Bits

A Modest Proposal to Combat Music Piracy in College

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The Higher Education Act is now at the President’s desk and is certain to be signed. The full text can be viewed here. Like most such laws that update ones previously passed, it is almost unreadable, because it is really an edit log: “change this word to that, add this sentence at the end of that paragraph,” etc.

It includes many disclosure and reporting requirements (colleges will have to include textbook costs in their online catalogs, for example). While I am all in favor of more transparency, my guess is that this will mostly result in colleges adding more clerks to satisfy the requirements, or, for colleges unable to afford more hires, conversion of educational and student-service positions into bean-counting and bean-reporting positions.

A lot of recent interest in the bill has come because of the entertainment industry’s efforts to pressure Congress into making colleges copyright enforcers on its behalf. Colleges are in a unique position — their residential students have no choice of Internet Service Providers. All the bits that students get go through the college’s connections to the Internet. Monitor and choke off illegal activity there, and students have nowhere else to get their bits.

The problem, as I noted in the Commencement issue of the Harvard Crimson, is that colleges should be the last place where communications are monitored for anything without probable cause. Students who have come to college to have new worlds opened up to them, to explore ideas and works that would have caused them shame and shunning at home, should not have every bit they are reading screened for appropriateness. That’s what we expect of Chinese universities, not American universities. If the entertainment industry (which pays a lot of the bills for many congressional campaigns) can get filtering installed on college’s networks, they will likely use that as a precedent to pressure Congress to act against other ISPs. And if the government can compel colleges to exclude this particular kind of material, it can compel colleges to keep out other kinds of bits it deems bad for the young to be consuming.

The compromise version of the Act that is at the President’s desk doesn’t mandate that colleges filter all incoming bits, only to disclose what weapons they are using to help the entertainment industry’s anti-“theft” crusade. But Congress hands the entertainment industry a different huge gift. It mandates that colleges develop plans to buy music subscription services. Here is the relevant language:


  • `(a) In General- Each eligible institution participating in any program under this title shall to the extent practicable–
      `(1) make publicly available to their students and employees, the policies and procedures related to the illegal downloading and distribution of copyrighted materials required to be disclosed under section 485(a)(1)(P); and

      `(2) 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.

Is there another area of private industry from which Congress mandates that colleges plan to buy subscription services? This section goes on to promise grants to colleges who fight the good fight against piracy. The recording and movie studios are rubbing their hands and setting up their money-changing tables right now, waiting for the colleges to line up to negotiate with them as federal law will soon demand.

Here’s a suggestion. Let’s instead pass a law requiring colleges to inspect laptops at the border of their property, the way DHS inspects laptops at the U.S. border, without probable cause. Students arriving as freshmen will have their laptops searched as they are unloaded from their parents’ cars. Same after they come back from winter break, etc. Ipods too, of course.

The reason this won’t happen is that students and their families wouldn’t stand for it. There would be face to face confrontations of a kind not seen since the draft protests of my youth.

The problem with network monitoring, and what makes it a more plausible and acceptable alternative, is that no one would see it happening. We all tend to accept intrusions that are logically equivalent to physical searches, even if we know they are happening, if we don’t see them happening.

The entertainment industry is winning in its efforts to force public and other private institutions keep its anachronistic business models alive for a few years longer. As much money as they claim to be losing, they have plenty to lobby Congress to do their bidding.

3 Responses to “A Modest Proposal to Combat Music Piracy in College”

  1. Paul Says:

    What gives me hope is that stronger and stronger ways of combating the entertainment industry are always being developed. Encryption is pretty handy and hard to get around.

    The entertainment industry is wrong in thinking that if we can’t download content, we’ll buy it. That’s not likely to happen while prices are so ridiculously high and they seek to create tougher restrictions on the content.

    It’s time for them to adapt their business model.

  2. S Smith Says:

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  3. BusinessForNoobs Says:

    Pretty Good