Entertainment lobbyists have dumped a nasty trojan horse into the Higher Education bill scheduled for markup Wednesday in the House Committee on Education and Labor. On page 412 of the massive 747-page “College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007″ is a requirement that educational institutions spend their scarce resources to
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.
So even as the committee asserts it wants to “make college more affordable and accessible,” it frustrates that purpose by letting Hollywood-driven mandates suck money away from the educational mission of colleges and universities. While “encourag[ing] colleges to rein in price increases,” the bill would force campuses to spend money exploring broken anti peer-to-peer technologies that make their networks less useful. Colleges that don’t fall into line risk losing federal student aid.
“Technology-based deterrents” are bound to be both over- and under-inclusive: blocking true educational uses while failing to stop piracy. A school cannot screen or filter all its Internet traffic without seriously impeding network innovation and research. If the “deterrents” block unknown communications, they stop students from experimenting on an end-to-end network, blocking the development of lawful peer-to-peer applications in the mold of Skype, distributed search, or LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe), a library archival system. If they block encrypted traffic, they compromise privacy and security. If they don’t, they’re trivially circumvented.
Finally, there’s no automated way to determine whether “unauthorized” uses are fair. Even were a technology to have perfect access to all Internet traffic for comparison against a corpus of works, it would not be able to incorporate the judge necessary to determine whether a given use were fair, transformative, educational, or merely substitutive and unfair.
Half-baked ideas like these have no place in an education bill. Rather than forcing schools to spend scarce resources on entertainment companies’ agendas, Hollywood should do its own homework, offering students enough compelling, compatible alternatives that they choose authorized access.