NEW YORK – College students are into more than frat parties, football games and homecoming activities these days.
A huge spike in the amount of music being downloaded and shared via campus computers is clogging university computer systems and taking up much-needed bandwidth. But as the recording industry urges college officials to clamp down on the activity, privacy groups say campuses have to be careful not to monitor students' every Web move.
Although the federal government monitors Web chat rooms and peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing to pinpoint suspicious activity in the war on terror, university and industry groups say it's not colleges' place to play spy games.
The Recording Industry Association of America, Motion Picture Association of America, The Songwriters Guild of America and the National Music Publishers' Association recently sent letters to over 2,300 colleges and universities urging education officials to crack down on illegal copyright infringement running rampant on their grounds.
The practice of downloading music and movies from the Internet and sharing them with friends and family has become commonplace.
"We are concerned that an increasing and significant number of students are using university networks to engage in online piracy of copyrighted creative works," the artists' groups wrote. "The educational purpose for which these networks were built is demeaned by such illegal behavior and is inconsistent with the ethical principles underlying the university community."
Music and movie industry groups have long complained that Web-surfers have become increasingly savvy on how to illegally download and share pirated entertainment. Numbers released in November show that online music sales fell 39 percent in the third quarter of this year compared to last year and that sales are lower than normal. Researchers said increased file sharing and CD burning is partly to blame.
So the artist groups asked colleges to make sure students know the "moral and legal responsibilities" and respect the rights of copyright owners and to monitor compliance of university file-sharing and downloading rules. The groups cited policies at schools such as Drake University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Michigan as model ones for others to follow that keep close tabs on students' Web activities.
"We didn’t want to prescribe a one-size-fits-all policy," said RIAA spokesman Jonathan Lamy.
But the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center responded with its own letter to university officials, saying colleges need to be careful not to monitor students so much it becomes invasive.
"We've argued that there are ways to manage the problem of P2P use that don't implicate monitoring individuals," said EPIC senior attorney Chris Hoofnagle.
Some ways to do this, he said, are to limit the ability of dorm computers to access file-sharing programs during a time when use is highest, or to limit the bandwidth.
"Colleges and universities are in a unique place to educate students about responsible use," Hoofnagle said.
But what colleges shouldn't be doing, EPIC argues, is spying on all students who tend to visit chat rooms on a regular basis or engage in many file-sharing activities.
"The government can't monitor for the sake of monitoring," Hoofnagle said. "They can't essentially go on a fishing expedition with wiretaps" to search out suspicious activity in the student body. "Obviously, if you were plotting an attack or if you had some sort of bad intention, you wouldn’t communicate that over a public chat room."
Companies contracted by the federal government to aid in homeland security efforts currently scan the Web for suspicious file-trading activity, downloads and message board notes, which can include topics as varied as bomb-making and anti-American sentiment.
The military is also developing a high-tech system that would allow the government to track the daily activities of its citizens, everything from the e-mail they write to the goods they charge to the library books they borrow.
Many Americans are already aware of e-mail surveillance programs with names like Carnivore and Magic Lantern. Such programs allow investigators to monitor personal e-mails and electronic communications, but have also been criticized by civil libertarians and privacy advocates for possibly violating individuals' rights.
But all parties involved in the college P2P debate say they're not looking for a few good Web spies. They simply want to make sure college bandwidth is preserved but students' privacy isn't trampled.
"I don't think everyone's interested in having a broad sweep of all e-mail interchanges on a given campus," said Shelly Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council of Education, an umbrella group of 1,800 colleges and universities that also sent a letter to university heads supporting the entertainment groups' stance on P2P activity.
Steinbach said the USA Patriot Act — enacted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and which calls for a variety of wiretapping and surveillance activities in the name of national security —covers the main spying activity that would need to take place and that that is under the federal government's purview, not colleges'.
He said random, sweeping searches of student personnel files are often a waste of time and energy. That likely will be the same case if too many student Web activities are monitored, he said.
"What do you expect to find — the winner of the Usama bin Laden scholarship?" Steinbach asked.