ITC blocks Napster access

In an attempt to preserve high-speed Internet access for Williams network users, the College’s Information Technology Committee (ITC) announced an immediate block against campus use of the Napster MP3 search engine Feb. 2. Students have since protested the policy change, calling for the College to purchase more Internet bandwidth and to remove the restriction.

Many Williams students download and trade MP3 music files over the Internet, and collectors praise the Napster program for making this process both faster and easier. Any Napster user can access any other Napster user’s MP3 collection, so thousands of collections are available and easily searchable through the Napster interface. This means that computers running Napster function as servers, offering files to interested browsers anywhere in the world.

Since the College has a high-speed Internet connection, the MP3 collections on student computers are particularly attractive to off-campus Napster users, and when many of them make simultaneous downloads the combined Napster traffic adds up quickly. This effect is invisible to students, because their computers continue to serve up MP3 files even when the students are not actively using Napster, and sometimes even after they think that they have closed the program.

“We believe that those using Napster may not understand the impact it’s having on the network traffic,” Interim Chief Technology Officer Dinny Taylor said.

Napster traffic on the Williams network exploded at the end of January. Director of Networks and Systems Mark Berman said that Napster file transfers filled 20 percent of the Williams Internet pipeline in the early morning, and then grew to 70 percent by the early evening.

According to ITC member David Ramos ’00, only a small number of computers would be necessary to generate so much traffic, using Napster. “There have been cases where one Napster user was using a third of the College’s network capacity (a full T1 line),” he said. By comparison, Berman said that files served by WSO typically use only 20percent of available bandwidth.

The upsurge in Napster traffic had a dramatic effect on the speed of the Internet for other Williams users. “People were [even] having trouble checking their e-mail from off-campus because the network was too slow,” WSO member Joe Masters ’02 said. Following numerous complaints, the ITC decided to block access to Napster and its Macintosh counterpart, Macster. “Everyone on the committee agreed that we should take the action, given the drain on the network resources and the impact on other users,” Taylor said.

Committee members emphasized that the move was unrelated to issues in copyright law raised by MP3 trading. “The decision had nothing to do with copyright or with ethics or with long-term policy. It was an emergency response to a situation that had become a crisis,” said Ramos.

The Williams action followed similar decisions at institutions across the country, beginning with Oregon State University and including Boston, North Carolina State and Northwestern Universities, as well as the Universities of New Hampshire, Pittsburgh and Texas. At Oregon State, Napster use alone had been costing the University $1500 per month.

However, in a letter to the ITC, College Council (CC) Co-President Bert Leatherman ’00 expressed his “vigorous” objection to the decision. “The Internet is evolving very quickly,” he said. “The appropriate response for the college is not to squelch this undeniably imminent trend [toward rich media] but to take every measure necessary to ensure Williams students have access to the online frontier.”

Many students have protested to the CC by e-mail, calling for OIT to invest in a larger Internet connection. Leatherman agreed, saying that the solution lay “not [in] the restriction of high-bandwidth applications but [in] the addition of bandwidth.”

Mark Berman maintained that the College has a demonstrated commitment to high-speed Internet access, but that it cannot reasonably make bandwidth upgrades in the middle of the year.

Through upgrades in the last two summers, the College’s level of Internet access has tripled from 1.5 Mbits (a single T1) in spring 1998 to 4.5 Mbits (three “bundled” T1s) now. Another upgrade is in the works for this summer. Berman said that many other colleges are still running on single T1 lines.

However, buying Internet access is “very location-sensitive,” and Williamstown is not an ideal locale for linking in. In fact, Berman said that local start-up Tripod had to locate its Web servers in New Jersey because it couldn’t buy the level of Internet service and redundancy that it needed in Williamstown “at any price.” Williams’ Internet provider is in far-off central Massachusetts, and adding bandwidth can mean adding miles of physical infrastructure.

“Buying more bandwidth isn’t really an option until the summer,” Ramos said. “These upgrades happen on a scale of years.”

Still, there may be other solutions besides widening Williams’ Internet pipe. For example, some students have suggested that one portion of the pipe be dedicated for high-bandwidth programs like Napster, so that they would not interfere with other network traffic.

Masters said that this would be technically difficult. “The technology is coming (in about 12-18 months) that will allow us to force outside traffic into a particular T1, but it’s just not widely enough adopted at this point for it to make any difference.”

Leatherman has been looking into whether students could reduce Napster traffic on their own if they could be educated to move their MP3 files out of its range. Since Napster maintains a user’s MP3 collection in a single directory, a user can prevent it from uploading the files to other Napster users simply by keeping that directory empty.

Although the College does limit Internet access in some ways for security reasons, Berman thought that this was the first time it had imposed a general “traffic regulation” on students who were not intentionally running FTP or Web servers.

According to Ramos, the long-term policy for dealing with high-bandwidth applications like Napster has not yet been set.

The ITC meets today and will discuss the future of the Napster issue.

“We don’t want this to be one side against another, but rather cooperation to figure out a solution that is realistic,” Taylor said.

The ITC advises the Office for Information Technology and the Provost’s Office about matters of computing policy.