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Cognitive Dissonance

Full disclosure: I once suffered the indignity and aggravation of being a systems administrator at a college. I understand the problems, both technical and financial of trying to keep under-funded, over-worked, dated computer networks operating in something approaching a reasonable fashion while waiting for the next grant to show up for the next load of bubble gum and baling wire, as well as donated hardware and software that wasn’t compatible with what existed.

The News blog at CNet reports: Politicos near vote on anti-P2P rules for universities

WASHINGTON–A U.S. House of Representatives committee plans to vote Wednesday afternoon on a Hollywood-backed higher education bill that would deprive colleges and universities of their financial aid funding if they don’t agree to provide deterrents and “alternatives” to peer-to-peer piracy.

A provision buried in the 747-page College Opportunity and Affordability Act (PDF) requires schools to devise a plan for providing “alternatives” to unlawful downloading–as well as “a plan to explore technology-based deterrents to prevent such illegal activity.” Those requirements would be added to an existing list of conditions for receiving federal student financial aid.

A final vote in the House Education and Labor Committee could occur late Wednesday, but because of the bill’s massive size, the meeting may continue into Thursday, committee aides said.

In effect, the bill as-is could pressure schools into signing up for monthly subscription services such as Ruckus and Napster. (Ruckus.com’s chief executive, for his part, has endorsed the effort.)

The first thing I want to know is exactly how many of those 747 pages of this bill were written by people being paid by the half dozen corporations that everyone seems to believe represent “Hollywood,” despite the fact that none of them are actually based in California.

Then I want to see the credentials of the people who are approving this mess that show they have an credibility in suggesting that “technology-based solutions” exist for the problem that may or may not exist.

Finally I want to know what this is doing an education bill.

It would be nice if the appropriate committee in Congress looked at the claim that the media six-pack are losing gazillions of dollars on the Internet while telling the WGA that money can’t be made on the Internet. If ‘Net downloads have no value [the claim made in negotiations with the WGA], how can these people turn around and claim they are losing money on ‘Net downloads?


1 Michael { 11.14.07 at 4:52 pm }

They don’t even need the freaking law. The RIAA has been getting everything it wants out of colleges and universities just through cease and desist letters. They hit a couple of dozen students with fines on my campus earlier this semester, and now the university is promoting its own free downloading service–which of course sucks rocks.

Though of course the flipside is that what the students are doing is illegal. Whether it should be or not is another question, and whether it’s an effective marketing strategery for the recording industry to be this heavy-handed is totally not a question at all. But if the students weren’t trying to boost music without paying for it, they wouldn’t have gotten themselves into that situation.

It occurs to me to wonder, however, whether the provision would even stand up in court if passed and signed into law. Seems to me there was something in one of the telecommunications acts that made ISPs unreachable for bad acts of customers who were using their services to commit fraud or other crimes. As long as the university has a policy in place about not using its resources for illegal downloads, they should be able to claim immunity under that provision.

2 Bryan { 11.14.07 at 5:37 pm }

The problem, Michael, is that this takes it out of the courts and makes it an administrative procedure in the Department of Education. The university would have to sue to get the funds restored.

As an administrator, I would have loved to have banned all high volume downloads because it slows the entire system, but at my level it would have been a pain to try to discriminate between a video/music download that was illegal and the same thing being sent as part of a class assignment. There are things done in almost every discipline these days that require massive data transfers and university IT departments are not usually very high on the pecking the order. I received a lot more respect as an assistant professor than as the system administrator.

Every university IT shop I know about has posted rules about sharing copyrighted materials of any kind. These days UWF has warnings about copyright violations posted on every copy machine on campus. If you find out about it, you stop it because of the effect on the network, as much as the law, but too many IT departments depend on student aides for much of the operational work, because the budget money just isn’t available to hire full-time people.

3 Michael { 11.14.07 at 10:17 pm }

Don’t I know it. Until the IT people screamed loud enough and long enough at the muckety-mucks and got us a bigger pipeline for the internets, savvy computer users knew not even to bother trying doing anything time-sensitive or involving large data packets during the lunch hour or after about 3 p.m.–because that’s when all of the mothers’ darlings were out of class and downloading their porn/music files, or gaming online, or whatever else it is they do these days to suck up bandwidth.

The flipside of that is that my boss is now having to pay an extra $10 a month for the dubious “privilege” of getting a gigabyte of mail storage for himself, his assistant director, and me. With disk space dirt cheap these days and more and more business being conducted on the internet, I can’t fathom why they still think a 500MB mailbox is supposed to be good enough (and that’s the upgraded option). One proposal description file from one of the 100+ faculty I work with on coordinating submissions can easily suck up a couple of megabytes, without even really trying. Those 100+ faculty submitted well over 100 proposals last year, and we’re on track to do the same or a few more this year. Not to mention the fact that if they’re doing their jobs correctly and I’m doing mine, there are going to be multiple drafts of that narrative flying back and forth between us as I make suggestions and they incorporate them.

The end result being that, until I got the super-deluxe 1GB mailbox, I was having to archive everything more than a month or two old, just to keep a reasonable amount of space free for incoming and outgoing correspondence. It’s a major pain in the arse to archive with our pitiful e-mail client, and since I archive to our network drive so as to ensure daily backup with secure off-site storage, just in case, that also means I can’t access my e-mail archive unless I’m physically on campus somewhere.

As far as I’m concerned, the students ought to have one gateway and one set of fiber, and the administrators ought to have a completely separate gateway/fiber set. But I know that will never happen.

4 Bryan { 11.14.07 at 10:39 pm }

Actually it can be resolved with routing and prioritizing if you have fiber and by throwing up some extra hardware. I don’t know, but I suspect you have a Microsoft network which makes everything more difficult because of some limitations in the software. The MS server software seems to choke at various points when you are scaling up with more users coming on-line at the same time the bandwidth should be sufficient, almost like it was shifting gears.

Since you’re in “administrative affairs” you don’t have any real pull, but I would have isolated things into three interconnected networks for admin, faculty, and students, with faculty given access to the student area, but students blocked out of any other area. The faculty could deal with students in their area, but you don’t worry about raids on grades or other protected information. One common network is a bad idea for a number of reasons, but funding may have made it necessary.

There are solutions, but they require time and money, which isn’t going to be forthcoming in todays tax environment. People what problems resolved, but they don’t want to pay for them.