New bill forces universities to police students

Thursday was a big day for the RIAA. After sending out a new batch of 417 out-of-court settlement letters to students at 16 universities, the House of Representatives education committee passed a bill requiring universities to offer legal alternatives to piracy, such as pay services, for its students. The bill urges universities to consider “technology-based deterrents” to block potential peer-to-peer transactions, effectively forcing universities to police their students’ downloading habits. As an incentive for universities, the bill threatens to pull out all students’ federal financial aid — even if not all
students download illegally — for universities that don’t comply.

This is not the way to curb illegal downloading. Universities have long been aware that their students illegally pirate movies and music, and the RIAA has long been slamming students with settlement notices. This bill puts universities in an even more precarious position as the middleman who can do no right — it asks them to monitor and covertly prevent their students from downloading illegally, or face the RIAA.

Even so, the RIAA is already forcing universities to turn on its students by sending the settlement letters to the universities and entrusting them to deliver the letters to the offending students.

The bill puts universities between a rock and a hard place. If universities do too much, they’re punishing students they should be helping; if they don’t do enough, it’s students who lose federal funding, not the universities themselves. This also creates an economic disparity in that the lowest income students who receive the most federal aid will be hardest hit if the government decides to come down on a university.

Moreover, statistics show that universities are responsible for only a small fraction of illegal downloads, and copyright infringement cases at universities have drastically decreased since schools became aware of the problem. The RIAA should crack down on other demographics, not just college students.

But most importantly, how universities handle students who illegally download should be between the schools’ administrations and their students. Instead, the bill forces universities to be the “bad guy” and crack down on their own students, as well as leave students vulnerable to having their education compromised by the federal government. Universities are here to educate us, not police us.