To the delight of mp3-crazed students, Napster has returned. After blocking access to the mp3 file-sharing program on Feb. 2, the Information Technology Committee (ITC) has decided to reopen access to Napster for general campus use on a trial basis in light of recent College Council (CC) efforts and student pressure for the program’s reinstatement.
Napster is a program that acts as a server for the sharing of mp3 files. The ITC, chaired by associate professor of English Shawn Rosenheim, took issue with Napster recently because its persistent use by students took up close to 70 percent of the College’s bandwidth.
The downloading and uploading of mp3 files by Napster users jammed the Williams Ethernet connection, slowing it down and preventing individuals from accessing the Internet at normal connection speed. Many members of the Williams community voiced their frustration with the slower connection, prompting the ITC to remove access to Napster from a Williams Internet connection.
“Since the primary mission of the Office of Information Technology (OIT) is to serve the
educational needs of the college, which includes kinds of support for administration, food service [and] security, anything that significantly impairs that mission will be seen in a dim light,” Rosenheim said. “Napster seemed a clear cut instance of such a case.”
However, many students objected to the blockage of Napster. Former CC co-president Bert Leatherman ’00 wrote a letter to the Record expressing that he “objected in principle” to the removal of Napster, claiming that it diminished students’ rights to free Internet access. Leatherman and CC soon found that there was substantial support for regaining Napster access. Leatherman then sent a letter to the ITC expressing his desire to reinstate Napster access.
Eventually, CC secretary Joe Masters ’02, CC representative Mayo Shattuck ’03 and Leatherman ’00 appeared at an ITC meeting to request the return of Napster access. The committee did not deem the issue to be in need of immediate attention, however. ITC encouraged the CC representatives to provide proof that there was enough discontent over the removal of Napster to make the question a pressing concern.
The trio set out to do so by raising the Napster issue at a subsequent CC meeting. They encouraged CC members to rally support for the reinstatement of Napster from their respective houses. Shattuck sent e-mails to first-years, which urged concerned students to send e-mails to Rosenheim to express their support for Napster’s reinstatement.
After receiving nearly 200 messages, mostly from first-years, Rosenheim and the ITC became convinced of the issue’s importance and agreed to address it. The CC representatives and the ITC reached a short-term agreement about Napster that relies on self-regulated use of the program.
The ITC consented to reinstating Napster access as long as students make sure to not take up unreasonable amounts of bandwidth in their use of he program.
“Since both the OIT and the ITC are in agreement that the college doesn’t wish to limit or censor computer use when it is avoidable, we agreed to this proposal,” Rosenheim said. Napster has been reinstated for a trial period.
CC hopes that students will be responsible in their use of the program so that the ITC does not decide to take the program away again. Responsible use includes downloading only one or two files at a time and disconnecting from the server when it is not in use. Remaining connected to Napster throughout the day allows others to upload files, thus increasing the bandwidth taken up by Napster-shared files.
Another strategy to avoid taking up too much bandwidth for users to move all of their Napster mp3 files to a folder on their hard drive, thus preventing others from uploading them though Napster and decreasing the bandwidth taken up.
Leatherman said the debate over Napster brings up the larger question of “preserving unfettered student access to the Internet.” Depriving students of Napster sets a precedent for restricting
student Internet access, he said. Therefore, according to Leatherman, it is crucial
that students demonstrate that they can be responsible in their use of Napster. If not, he said, then administrative restrictions become necessary.
Shattuck estimates that, as of Friday, April 7, Napster continues to take up around 50 percent of the College’s bandwidth. Shattuck emphasizes that the CC’s main goal in the Napster issue is to “increase awareness” about responsible Napster use.
CC plans to have house presidents send e-mails outlining responsible Napster use to their residents.
The Napster debate has also produced possible long-term solutions. One such idea, according to Leatherman, is to create a “recreational line” of bandwidth through which students can access programs such as Napster. This line would be separate from another chunk of bandwidth, which the College would reserve for use by libraries and professors, for example. This plan is not feasible at the moment because it requires bandwidth manipulation that the College would have to research further.
Other possible solutions include allowing access to Napster during off-peak hours only, or uploading mp3s to Achilles or even to the Goodrich tune servers, where the files could be placed in the file servers of the iMacs’ hard disks. By doing this, each computer would no longer be a server to the outside world. However, storing possibly pirated music files on school computers could make the school legally liable for any copyright infringements contained in the mp3 files. The College wishes to avoid such legal liability. Therefore, using the school network to store mp3s probably will not happen.
Rosenheim believes that the Napster debate has produced valuable lessons, and implications, for the Williams community. “The Napster flap suggests that the College needs to expand its sense of
the OIT’s mission to include quality-of-life issues insofar as we can,” Rosenheim said. He acknowledges that bandwidth expansion is an option to avoid similar controversies in the future. Rosenheim sees the Napster debate as merely the beginning of the College’s complicated technological future.
“Most importantly, [the Napster debate] reminds us of the fundamental newness and instability of educational technologies. I’m sure we’ll have more issues like this. In fact, this has been quite a simple issue. In the future, we’re likely to have much more vexed and intractable problems.”