Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Swarthmore has seen a drop in the number file-sharing notices it has received from the Recording Industry Association of America from an average of 3 notices a week last semester to 2 per week this semester. Part of this decrease could be attributed to changes in Swarthmore’s Internet Technology Service’s policy concerning such notices: This past September, Congress passed legislation requiring colleges to create policies which discouraged file-sharing. ITS has complied with the law by instituting a new policy of disconnecting all students who received file-sharing take-down requests from the school network.
While this particular policy punishes students, ITS is simultaneously trying to protect students. Swarthmore Free Culture, a copyright-freedom advocacy group, is working with ITS to delete student internet logs within 30 days. While the main reason to delete these logs is to protect student privacy, it can also have the effect of preventing the RIAA, or its counterpart the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), from linking an instance of file-sharing to a specific student’s name, according to Free Culture co-president Ben Mazer ’10.
The group is also looking at two programs, Acanatha and Tor, that route online traffic through other computers also running the software before it reaches its final destination. This would hide the original source of the traffic, and allow students to browse the internet anonymously. “What were trying to do is further anonymize people…so RIAA has no grounds to harass ITS about this,” said Nick LaRacunte ’10, Free Culture’s other co-president.
The focus of ITS’ efforts, as mandated by law, is still to encourage legal forms of entertainment consumption. Early this year, Barton sent an email to students promoting Pandora, Hulu.com and subscription-based resources that allow free and legal access. Although Barton hopes that “people are doing more legal free-sharing because there’s a lot of really good free material that’s legal.”
“Its certainly true that people are turning to legal sources like itunes because major retailers are starting to offer songs DRM free,” said Dan Chung ‘10. “Without these restrictions, [users can] share [files] with friends.”
YouTube has also become more versatile by offering options that are directly comparable to paid sources. Students can sample new artists or albums on Youtube without purchasing the music and users can even create playlists from their favorite videos. In a completely wireless environment like Swarthmore, iPhones can substitute for iPods as the free music becomes mobile. Similarly, television shows are freely streamed online by their sponsoring networks.
However, Barton received 6 new copyright violation notices this past weekend. “I was so hopeful that the new warnings and the penalties were working, but I guess not,” she wrote in an email.
The sporadic notice issued by RIAA do not deter students because students are primarily motivated by access to content, according to Professor Bob Rehak, who teaches courses in new media in Film and Media Studies. “As long as students don’t worry about quality as reproduction, they go wherever access is more available, renegade pirated or legitimate. They are nomadic,” he said.
One anonymous student admitted that heavy-downloaders remain undeterred. Since the RIAA only targets users who upload files, students are turning to programs that allow users to download content without uploading, although this can result in slower download times.
Rehak sees this sparring between different sides of cultural industries as the “latest iteration in an old battle about freedom of info versus control over access.” But the advent of Information Technology has blurred the distinction between different types of data. Audio, video and books have become transferable data that, people believe, should be just as freely available online like information on wikipedia.
Part of the RIAA’s concern is the loss in profits resulting from the transition into the digital age. The recording industry faced a 12% decrease in total revenues last year even though digital music sales rose 42%, according to the RIAA’s statistics. The rampant black market for music poses even greater losses in revenue. As digital markets for music continue to replace the market for CDs, the recording industry may face a bleak future if it continues on this trajectory. These statistics, however, have been criticized as biased and unreliable for years.
Dean Larimore hypothesized that reduction in RIAA notices reflects a decrease in their diligence to pursue students. “Some of it has been tied, in hindsight, to where they are in legislation to increase penalties,” he said. Either the RIAA is quiet after successfully lobbying for increased penalties against students or they are continuing to push for further legislation. The RIAA’s website does not offer any further information at this time.
At this moment, administrators simply don’t know where Swarthmore students lie on the spectrum of music sharing activity. Larimore hopes to learn about level of enforcement at other colleges during a dean’s conference that will occur early next year. At the time of this interview, before Barton received the additional file-sharing notices, Larimore said he felt “optimistic, but I’m not quite sure what the whole story might be.” His mixed feelings seem to reflect the general consensus.