Congress Hears of Internet Piracy, But Hesitates on Action

University initiatives to stop illegal downloading of music, movies and more among college students will be critical to success because the federal government is unlikely to crack down on campuses, said witnesses at a House hearing Tuesday on Internet piracy.

Universities nationwide have taken steps to curb illegal downloading and it would be a "serious mistake for the federal government to force them into a mold," said William Fisher, director of The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

The University System of Maryland is doing its best to fight Internet piracy, Chancellor William E. Kirwan told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce's Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness.

Maryland's public universities prevent students from illegally downloading copyrighted material by monitoring campus Internet traffic, discussing ethical Internet practices with students, making clear its policy on appropriate Internet use and offering legal downloading services, he said.

"If members of our community are using our resources to do something illegal, we have an obligation, a fundamental obligation, to address that matter," Kirwan said.

The House passed a bill in March to allow universities to use federal money to address illegal peer-to-peer file sharing, said Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., subcommittee chairman. But, he said in a written statement, ultimately, universities are "in the best position to confront the problem."

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., Education and the Workforce Committee chairman, said government hearings provide a forum and a "bully pulpit" for representatives of higher education and the entertainment industry. But McKeon stopped short of endorsing legislative measures.

Entertainment industry representatives didn't press for legislation but stressed that more colleges must agree to cooperate.

"We are not asking schools to spy on the contents of students' communications," said Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America. Instead, he said, universities are encouraged to monitor their networks for illegal downloading, a process that, much like virus detection, doesn't violate students' privacy.

Fast university computer networks make it particularly easy for students to use file-sharing applications to search for and download songs, movies and software from other users for free.

More than 50 percent of college students "frequently download music and movies illegally," said Sherman.

Universities also suffer when students use their networks for illegal purposes, the witnesses said, because file sharing often infects the system with viruses and spyware and uses up a lot of bandwidth.

Believing that partnerships between individual universities and the entertainment business are a good way to achieve long-lasting results, both sides teamed up to create the Joint Committee of the Higher Education and Entertainment Communities Technology Task Force.

Kirwan, who will be co-chairman of the group beginning in November, said it's an "excellent vehicle" for helping campuses combat illegal file sharing.

However, he warned that officials must be careful not to harm legitimate file sharing, like library peer-to-peer systems.

"We have to be mindful that we can't throw the baby out with the bath water."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.