Imagine a few students sitting in a common room with their laptops, illegally swapping music and movies on the Internet.
When they are caught, the punishment is swift and harsh. The federal government revokes their federal financial aid — and the aid of every other student at their school — because the university was not doing enough to police illegal downloading.
A major higher education bill proposed in the House on Friday includes requirements that universities must meet in order to be eligible to receive federal money for financial aid — one of which is to develop a plan to fight piracy.
But Yale officials said they think the bill’s requirements are not as extreme as some media outlets reported this weekend, suggesting that universities could lose all their financial aid funding from the federal government if they do not crack down on illegal file sharing. Still, the entertainment industry’s Washington lobbying efforts for inclusion of strict penalties in the bill proved threatening enough to spur the University’s general counsel to co-author a letter last week urging Congress not to persecute universities that are already doing their best to discourage file sharing.
“Such an extraordinarily inappropriate and punitive outcome would result in all students on that campus losing their federal financial aid … [which is] essential to their ability to attend college, advance their education and acquire the skills necessary to compete in the 21st-century economy,” Yale Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson wrote in a letter that was also signed by the presidents of Stanford, Penn State and the University of Maryland. “Lower income students, those most in need of federal financial aid, would be harmed most,” she wrote.
Under the proposed bill, universities would be required to inform students about their policies on illegal filing sharing, as well as develop a plan for combating peer-to-peer file sharing by offering “alternatives” to students and investigating “technology-based deterrents” to illegal file sharing, like network filters to block illegal downloads.
Robinson’s letter was released last Wednesday, and the House Committee on Education and Labor released the draft of its bill Friday. Since then, the blogosphere has been abuzz with concerns that, under the proposed legislation, students would be deprived of much-needed financial aid because students at their school were nabbed sharing illegal files.
But the text of the bill itself does not appear to include the harshest punishments that the University initially feared, said Richard Jacob, Yale’s associate vice president for federal relations.
“The more draconian option” — cutting off funding to universities that the entertainment industry says have the highest level of illegal file sharing — “is not in the bill,” Jacob said.
The entertainment industry had lobbied for that measure to be included in the law, Robinson wrote. Lobbyists also pushed for the requirement that universities consider “technology-based deterrents,” which did remain in the bill.
That caveat is more worrisome to Yale, Jacob said. Though the University carefully polices illegal downloading by limiting bandwidth and blocking certain ports, the requirement in the bill is vague, and it was not immediately clear Monday whether the University’s current actions would meet that requirement, he said.
The bill suggests that universities should experiment with offering students access to music services like Napster or Ruckus — “alternatives” to illegal downloading — or risk being out of compliance with the bill. That possibility raised particular concern among higher education officials and authors of the letter, who said the music programs do not necessarily work well and could cost hundreds of millions of dollars for colleges to purchase.
The nonprofit organization Educause, an association that promotes the use of technology in higher education, has issued a “call to action” regarding the provision, said the organization’s Vice President Mark Luker.
“The federal government has no business mandating what universities buy their students for entertainment, or to buy products that don’t really work,” Luker said in an interview Monday. “That’s [going to] increase the cost of higher education.”
The loss of federally funded financial aid money would be significant. Yale undergraduates received more than $3.4 million in federal grants and $1.9 million in federal work-study earnings in the 2006-’07 academic year, Chief Financial Aid Officer Caesar Storlazzi said.
Among American universities, more than $75 billion in federal financial aid is given to students annually, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
Representatives of the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America were unavailable for comment Monday. But in a statement, MPAA chairman Dan Glickman praised the proposed legislation.
“Intellectual property theft is a worldwide problem that hurts our economy and costs more than 140,000 American jobs every year,” Glickman said. “We are pleased to see that Congress is taking this step to help keep our economy strong by protecting copyrighted material on college campuses.”
The 747-page bill was introduced by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. — chairman of the Education and Labor Committee — and Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas.
A spokesman for the committee could not be reached Monday, when Congressional offices were closed for Veterans Day. The bill is to be examined by committee members this week, Miller and Hinojosa said in a statement.