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Politicos near vote on anti-P2P rules for universities

Massive higher education bill being debated Wednesday could force universities to agree to provide deterrents and "alternatives" to illegal downloads--or risk losing their financial aid.

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. ('s chief executive, for his part, has endorsed the effort.)

University officials have voiced alarm at the prospect of losing a combined total of some $100 billion in federal financial aid if their plans don't pass muster. The Association of American Universities has voiced its disapproval to committee leaders through a letter last week, and Educause, a non-profit organization that focuses on technology use in education, has issued an action alert urging the requirements to be dropped.

At the moment, however, it appears the provisions stand a good chance of surviving the scheduled vote Wednesday. A committee aide said approximately 25 amendments are expected to be proposed at the meeting, but to her knowledge, none of them would alter the antipiracy requirements.

The bill's sponsors say it's a "myth" that schools will lose their financial aid if illegal file sharing occurs on their networks or will be forced into using "alternative" file-sharing programs that cost them millions of dollars.

In a fact sheet sent to CNET by a committee aide on Wednesday, they wrote, "The bill does not mandate the use of any programs by colleges. Colleges and universities are simply required to report their campus policies on intellectual property theft, including their penalties, and to develop plans for addressing illegal file-sharing. For schools that want additional assistance in stopping illegal file sharing, the bill creates a voluntary grant program."

Check back with CNET later on Wednesday as we track the bill's path.