College’s revised Napster policy a worthy compromise

Last year, a straightforward file swapping program written by a college student brought cries of rage from a multi-billion dollar industry and slowed campus computer networks across the country to a crawl. This will be a significant chapter in the history of the digital revolution.

Certainly there are moral issues. Is it fair for Napster to claim no responsibility for the types of files that are traded when it is common knowledge that most files are stolen music? Shouldn’t creative individuals have ownership of their creations and, if so desired, have the right to profit from them? Is it significant that the ones crying foul the loudest represent a bloated music industry with a history tainted by abuse of artists and manipulation of the public? There is something very unseemly about an $18 price tag on a CD that costs a fraction of that amount to produce. How much of that price gets to the artists? Certainly more than gets to them from free Internet trading. And what about the impact this has on small community music stores like Toonerville Trolley?

I don’t have any answers. Fortunately, as chair of the Information Technology Committee (ITC) my concerns are more circumscribed. Working with the Office of Information Technology (OIT), we will do everything we can to insure that recreational and non-academic computer use will not interfere with the mission of this college.

Before we shut it down last year, Napster was occupying over 70 percent of the entire bandwidth owned by the college. Definitive events in a true revolution lack precedence or analogy, but can you imagine some non-academic student activity that would quickly occupy 70 percent of, say, our classroom space?

On the other side of the issue are student freedoms. Dorm rooms are where students live. Students deserve reasonable privacy and security in their place of residence, including what they do with their computer. It is only when recreational computer use interfered with our academic functions that the college had to play the “we own the wires” trump card and shut down the activity. Williams clearly has the right to decide what its resources get used for.

I don’t think we’ll have the same problems this year. Even without Napster, we had outgrown our three T1 lines and the provider’s ability to support them – we will soon have well over twice that capacity with a new provider. We also have new software and hardware that can manage priorities for off-campus traffic. All legitimate programs are given the highest priority, insuring fast access for our most important activities. Any and all other programs are given reduced priority.

While this preserves the ability of students to engage in computer activities of their choosing, it should in no way be interpreted as an endorsement of copyright violations. The situation is complicated, and as academicians we should all be involved in issues of intellectual property rights.

Solutions come from creative environments. Colleges and universities maintain intellectual creativity by harboring a safe haven for diverse exploration and the free exchange of ideas. I sincerely hope that our bandwidth management solution is a good balance between maintaining freedoms and securing the functionality of the Williams network. I also hope that we will engage the issues in all their complexity so that we play an active role in shaping the digital revolution.