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Schools declare file-swapping truce

As network management tools let universities set bandwidth limits and file-swapping "hours," many schools stop blocking online peer-to-peer exchanges.

After an initial shock, U.S. universities are learning to live with file swapping among students on campus, despite legal risks and the heavy demands such activities place on computer networks.

When Napster burst onto the Net about two years ago, some campus network administrators blocked the software to avoid lawsuits and conserve resources. Now the legal threats to universities have receded and many of the technical problems that once plagued networks are being solved, giving network administrators more options when setting peer-to-peer usage policies, some college officials say.

"Students are essentially our customers, and we need to try to make them happy," said Russell Taylor, director of academic computing and information systems at Lees-McRae College, in Banner Elk, N.C. "Music and movies are out there to download, so rather than take a hard-and-fast line to block it...we decided it would be best to let it continue, but to limit it down until such a time it does become illegal."

Many schools, including the University of Georgia, Cornell University and Indiana University, publish Internet usage policies warning against software piracy. Some bear specific sections on sound recordings, pointing out that unauthorized copying of music files to a computer hard drive may violate federal copyright law.

Still, after initially cracking down on file swapping as courtrooms became rife with lawsuits from the entertainment industry, many colleges are now working to accommodate controlled levels of peer-to-peer activities over their networks.

Tolerance of file swapping on campus is partly attributed to the emergence of efficient management tools for network traffic, which could conceivably be used to harshly limit the practice. Companies such as Packeteer and NetReality have been marketing such products to schools for months and claim hundreds of clients.

Highlighting the growing flexibility of network management tools, NetReality this week announced an upgrade to its WiseWan technology that gives network managers three options for controlling peer-to-peer connections: They can slow access to low-priority applications, allow use only during certain hours, or block people from some programs entirely.

The company said the latest version of WiseWan will include a new peer-to-peer engine, enabling network managers to quickly identify new bandwidth-hogging applications and apply policies to control usage. For instance, a network manager using WiseWan could automatically see when people tap into file-swapping services such as Morpheus and Gnutella and discover how much bandwidth each person is consuming. The upgrade will also help network mangers identify and monitor HTTP-Tunnel, a technique that hides peer-to-peer traffic by making it resemble regular Internet traffic, enabling it to slip past firewalls.

"Any institution or enterprise can make a case for limiting the use of these (file-swapping applications) because they're the ones paying for the bandwidth," said Phil Benyola, a digital media research associate for investment company Raymond James Financial. "There is a genuine demand for easy ways to prevent people from using the Internet for things other than work purposes."

Liberal education
Bandwidth management software could theoretically be used to block unauthorized peer-to-peer use on a network, but for now, customers in the academic market seem uninterested in choking off file swapping altogether.

Oregon State University, which banned Napster two years ago, is one of hundreds of academic institutions that have adopted more tolerant attitudes after installing peer-to-peer management technology.

The university discovered that peer-to-peer networks--most notably Morpheus and Kazaa--had been eating up 80 percent of its bandwidth, which "essentially brought all applications to a halt," said Jon Dolan, manager of network engineering at Oregon State.

To alleviate the congestion problem, the university installed a technology by Cupertino, Calif.-based Packeteer, in October, setting peer-to-peer networks--particularly Morpheus and Kazaa--as low priorities on the traffic system. Dolan said the device allows the university to manage its bandwidth and prioritize its traffic so people can surf the Web or download files for academic purposes without running into performance problems caused by peer-to-peer traffic.

With Packeteer's technology, file-swapping programs "take a backseat when other things are going on," Dolan said. "We simply reiterated to all our students that they need to respect copyright material. The danger with these applications is that we can't tell what's copyright-protected and what's not."

Oregon State said it paid about $35,000 for Packeteer's technology. The company said it charges between $3,000 and $49,000. NetReality's prices are similar, running from about $3,000 to $30,000. To date, NetReality said it has sold 3,000 units.

Northwestern University began blocking access to Napster two years ago, but it later ended the file-swapping ban when it installed bandwidth monitoring technology.

"We wanted to ensure that everyone who needed access to the Internet could get it," said Thomas Board, director of technology support services at Northwestern. "To that end, we wanted to make sure certain applications or protocols that have high demand for connectivity didn't take up all the bandwidth that was available."

Board said peer-to-peer applications are still used within the campus network without restriction. However, the university has set up a Web site to inform people what the bandwidth management system is doing and the rules it has set for students. For instance, on the weekdays between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., the university gives 25 percent of available bandwidth to high-demand applications, such as peer-to-peer networks. During the evenings and weekends, that jumps to 50 percent of available bandwidth.

Lees-McRae College faced similar problems. Music and film downloads comprised about 85 percent to 90 percent of the college's traffic. Librarians, for instance, couldn't use the online card catalog to look up a book, and students couldn't conduct research using the college's online periodicals database.

The college said it installed NetReality's technology last fall, allocating only one third of its T1 line--about 500 kilobytes--to music and film downloads. Although students complained that the technology causes slower download times for file-swapping applications, school officials say they are essentially regulating the traffic, not stopping students from using those applications entirely.

Peer-to-peer networks "are on the rise, and there are new ones literally appearing on a daily basis," said Kit Waugh, vice president of marketing and business development at NetReality. "It seems to be a problem that's kind of epidemic right it's important to find a way to manage these things. Most people that want protection are not looking specifically to block the traffic; they're just looking to control it in a reasonable manner."

Legal question mark
The shift in college networking policies highlights a legal gray area for the entertainment industry, which has so far aimed its anti-piracy efforts at developers of file-swapping software such as Napster and StreamCast Networks, the company behind Morpheus. The record labels have also pressed action against some individuals, a tactic that among other things led University of Oklahoma campus police to confiscate the computer of a student after a complaint from the Recording Industry Association of America.

Jonathan Lamy, a spokesman for the RIAA, said that for now the group is sticking to a hands-off approach on campuses, allowing individual schools to set their own policies.

"What we do is educate colleges and universities about copyright infringements, but we leave it to each school to decide what specific measures they will take against the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted work over the Internet," he said.

Although the legal terrain is still largely unmapped, at least one lawsuit has been filed seeking to hold schools liable for files swapped on their networks. Heavy metal band Metallica and rapper Dr. Dre, two of the earliest and most outspoken critics of file swapping, named three universities and Napster in a complaint, alleging copyright infringement. The schools--Yale University, Indiana University and the University of Southern California--were removed from the suit after they agreed to block access to Napster on their networks.

Since then, however, Yale and Indiana University have begun using bandwidth management software to allow some file swapping on campus networks.

It's unclear whether universities could be forced to introduce stricter policies. Like Internet service providers, schools are broadly protected from liability over illegal activities that take place on their networks, legal experts said. For example, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act--the primary cudgel used by the recording industry to combat MP3 piracy--ISPs cannot be held liable for contributory copyright infringement if they remove allegedly infringing material upon notice from a copyright holder.

In addition, attorneys said peer-to-peer technologies appear to offer legitimate uses, particularly in an academic environment, that could make it difficult for colleges to justify banning them completely.

Howard King, the attorney who represented Metallica and Dr. Dre, said schools shut down Napster for three reasons--part legal, part moral and part technical. But he added that banning peer-to-peer technology on campus is likely too harsh a remedy.

"Not all peer-to-peer networks or peer-to-peer technology are illegal or bad," King said. "I'm sure there are substantial positive uses of these networks."