Lawmakers Examine Tech Solutions to Illegal File Sharing

WASHINGTON – Congress today turned its attention – again — to illegal peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing on college campuses, an issue that has already prompted a March Judiciary Committee hearing and numerous other hearings over the past few years.

Tuesday afternoon, the House Science Committee took its turn, focusing on the effectiveness of technologies used to sniff out the illegal files flowing over college and university networks. The reviews were mixed.

“In today’s digital world, we generally rely on technology to combat illegal activities,” said Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN). “Do these technologies stop all illegal activities? Of course not. But they do prevent the bulk of bad things from happening.”

According to the panel, college students illegally downloaded approximately 1.3 billion music tracks in 2006; compared with about 500 million legal downloads. A study by the University of Richmond’s Intellectual Property Institute claims more than half of all college students download music and movies illegally.

“We can’t rely on laws and regulations alone to fix the problem. Technology will be the first line of defense,” Gordon said.

Technology officers from the University of Utah and Arizona State University (ASU) told the committee their schools have significantly reduced campus piracy by deploying a combination of traffic shaping and network filtering technologies. Illinois State University said it is working with the technologies but problems remain, not the least of which is funding.

All three school stressed technology can only be effective when used in conjunction with education, enforcement and legal downloading alternatives.

But Gregory Jackson, chief information officer at the University of Chicago, flatly stated anti-infringement technologies fail within high-performance networks and that deploying technology against what amounts to behavior has only limited effects. He pointed to digital rights management (DRM) systems as the primary problem.

“DRM appears to be a good idea,” Jackson said. “However, it has been plagued by poor execution and so has come to be a frustrating obstacle rather than a convenient enabler.”

Noting the inability of Apple’s iTunes downloads being unable to play on mobile devices other than Apple products, Jackson said, “Media producers provide and protect their online wares inconsistently, incompatibly, inefficiently, inconveniently and incompletely.”

He added, “So long as the right thing remains more daunting, awkward and unsatisfying than the wrong thing, too many people will do the wrong thing.”

ASU’s Adrian Sannier said his school ultimately decided to use Audible Magic’s CopySense Network appliance, which does not disable P2P networking or restrict available bandwidth. Instead, the system blocks the exchange of copyrighted material while allowing the unobstructed transfer of legitimate files.

“While our technical team was skeptical of the approach at first, our initial tests convinced us that the CopySense approach would provide us with a viable solution,” Sannier said. “It was configured to reject any traffic identified as registered commercial music, likely commercial music, likely commercial film and TV or likely commercial software.”

The list price of CopySense for ASU is approximately $200,000, although discounts will bring down this year’s costs to half that.

Despite the success of the program, Sannier said the battle against illegal file sharing is still an open question.

“We remain concerned about the potential for an ongoing arms race,” he said. “Peer-to-peer services have evolved to defeat effective countermeasures before and it would be foolhardy to believe no further evolution is possible.”

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