Phynd closed in wake of new legal battles

Amid concerns of liability both to itself and to the College, Williams Students Online (WSO) on Wednesday shut down the popular network indexing service, Phynd. The service had been implemented only a few months earlier.

The road to Phynd’s removal began several weeks before spring break, at a meeting between Peter Grudin, assistant dean of the College; Don Dubendorf, lawyer of the College and Mark Berman, director of Networks and Systems. At the meeting, Dubendorf made it clear that the College could be held liable if WSO continued to host Phynd: “I asked Mr. Dubendorf whether he thought action could be brought against the College, and he said yes. He was quite definite on that,” Grudin said.

Although Dubendorf suggested that the College could be held liable for WSO’s hosting Phynd, WSO remains convinced that Phynd is a legal service. According to WSO, it is simply an indexing service that eases access to files that are otherwise available: “What Phynd does is it looks around on campus to see what files people have shared, and it simply indexes them. It doesn’t share any files, and it doesn’t differentiate between what types of files are shared,” said Josh Ain ’03, a member of WSO.

“When you do a Google search, there’s no guarantee that everything that turns up is going to be a legal file, but Google is not the one serving anything that’s illegal,” he said, referring to the popular Internet search engine.

Convinced that Phynd was legal, WSO briefly considered consulting outside legal counsel with the goal of keeping Phynd available. However, a major event occurred on April 3 that convinced WSO that it was not in their interest to continue to host Phynd: In a new strategy, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed lawsuits directly against students at Princeton University, RPI and Michigan Technological University who had either implemented Phynd or systems similar to it.

Cary Sherman, president of the RIAA, explained in a press release: “These systems are best described as ‘local area Napster networks.’ The court ruled that Napster was illegal and shut it down. These systems are just as illegal and operate in just the same manner. And just like Napster, they hurt artists, musicians, songwriters, those who invest in their work and the thousands of others who work to bring music to the public.”

However, the claim that Phynd operates in the same manner as Napster is one with which WSO strongly disagrees. Whereas Napster itself was responsible for sharing files, Phynd takes advantage of networking built directly into Microsoft Windows. Even without Phynd, students are still able to share these files. “Phynd doesn’t enable anything that you can’t do without Phynd, it’s just a more convenient interface,” Ain said.

It is unclear whether the College would have actually allowed WSO to continue to host Phynd had it wished to. WSO and Grudin both indicated that the decision to close Phynd was ultimately left to WSO. However, Dean Roseman said that although she trusted that WSO would make the right decision itself, “because of the College’s liability in this case, I would have had to work with OIT to develop a course of action if WSO did not end Phynd.”

WSO, however, voluntarily chose to take down Phynd. Its reasons for doing so were relatively simple: It had neither the time nor the resources to defend itself in court. “WSO is a computing organization, and it’s not a particularly large organization, so it doesn’t have the resources to spread itself thin doing these other things,” Ain said.

Although Grudin said that he was “less sensitive than students are to the upside of this,” WSO is disappointed to lose Phynd not just because of the ease with which it allowed students to search the network.

One advantage of Phynd was that it sped up the campus internet connection by reducing the amount of bandwidth used to connect to and download from computers off campus. “We implemented it in order to decrease the amount of off-campus bandwidth, and looking at OIT logs confirmed that it accomplished that goal,” said Chris Douglas ’05, a WSO member.

For now, WSO has no plans to implement any kind of service that might replace Phynd. However, if the court cases establish legal precedent for Phynd’s legality, WSO would happily put the service back online. “Depending on the outcome of these court cases, if it turns out that what we’re doing was legal, then yes, we can bring it back up,” Douglas said.