UF file-sharing ban meets opposition

Eldo Varghese and Gavin Baker, University of Florida undergraduates and Weaver Hall residents, have formed the group Florida Free Culture to lobby the university to lift the ban on file-sharing programs.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, January 26, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 26, 2005 at 12:35 a.m.
Rob Bird, coordinator of network services and co-creator of a file swapping monitor service known as ICARUS, is at the center of a file sharing debate at the University of Florida.
Microbiology student Eldo Varghese tried to download a free software program from a computer in his University of Florida dormitory last month.
But there was a problem. The free software he needed could be accessed only through an online file distribution system known as peer-to-peer, which is banned in all student housing on campus.
But if a newly formed student club, Florida Free Culture, is successful, Varghese and other students living on campus interested in sharing files may see some relief.
The network ban, made possible by monitoring software developed at UF, was established in 2003 after the university found itself having to respond to illegal file-sharing complaints from trade groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America each semester.
Peer-to-peer, or P2P programs such as Kazaa and Gnutella, enable personal computers to send files back and forth between other PCs. These programs are often used to download files that infringe copyrights such as music and movies.
Students living on campus who try to download and use P2P software are automatically detected and shut down - five minutes for a first offense, five days for a second offense and indefinitely for a third offense.
Rob Bird is UF's coordinator of network services and co-creator of the monitoring software ICARUS, Integrated Computer Application for Recognizing User Services.
Aside from making dorm rooms a file-share-free zone, ICARUS also ensures that computers in the housing network, which consists of 24 residence halls and five "village communities," remain free from worms, viruses and other computer threats.
Gavin Baker, Free Culture president, agrees that ICARUS is a program with positive capabilities, but wants UF's zero tolerance on file sharing weakened so that P2P software is allowed.
"Limiting access to P2P technology stifles innovation - something that should be encouraged at a university, not suppressed," Baker said.
Legal P2P uses The club's faculty adviser, Gerald Haskins, said P2P programs have legal uses.
For example, open source software is available for free. Computer programmers can use P2P programs to download open source software, study it and/or modify it, then redistribute it.
"The idea is that hundreds of developers is preferable to a handful when creating, improving and fixing bugs in a program," Baker said. "The speed in which a program evolves and improves is dramatically increased."
Paul Ramsey, president of Refractions Research, based in Victoria, Canada, likens open source software to eating at a restaurant where the recipes are provided alongside the meals. You can simply enjoy the food, but you also can take the recipe home, change the seasonings and serve the result to your friends.
If open source software is like eating at a restaurant, then P2P programs are the waiters that serve the meals - only at UF the wait staff has been laid off.
Other uses for P2P programs include circulating the work of up-and-coming musical artists and movie producers who want a free and simple way to distribute their work. And even some notable bands, such as Pearl Jam and the Beastie Boys, have warmed to the idea of file-sharing programs used to swap their music.
Bird doesn't deny that there are legitimate uses to P2P software and says students with an academic need to use the technology can ask for an exemption. But no student has made such a request since the launch of ICARUS in 2003, he said.
Lightening workloads Bird and fellow programmer Will Saxon invented the monitoring software in their spare time to lessen the workload of a staff charged with running down thousands of judicial offenses each semester. Since ICARUS, only about 30 students have violated the file-sharing ban a third time.
Also, when file swapping peaked at UF, it monopolized the available bandwidth, which is the capacity for information to pass to and from a computer.
Some students faced academic dilemmas, complaining of online lectures being inaccessible because of the virtual traffic jam. During the first week of ICARUS, bandwidth traffic dropped 85 percent, Bird said.
With patents pending and licensing negotiations under way, ICARUS may show up at other college campuses.
"There is nothing even close to this out there," Bird said. "We've been very tight-lipped about how it's designed."
Some universities, such as Penn State and Cornell, have chosen a different solution in the battle with online piracy and have partnered with online music stores, such as the now-legitimate Napster, to give students a legal alternative.
As part of their tuition, students pay as much as $10 a month for the ability to select songs from an online library and listen to the musical selections on their computers.
If users want to "burn" music to a compact disc or download songs to a portable device, such as an MP3 player, they pay an additional dollar per download.
But Bird says combining subscriptions to online music stores with tuition is the wrong answer.
"We have some very cost-conscience students," he said. "Some have even asked to opt out of air conditioning to save money."
ICARUS does not block paid audio services, and students may sign up for individual subscriptions. UF's Student Government is using surveys to evaluate whether campus residents want a Napster-like service, said Dennis Ngin, student body treasurer.
Traffic-shaping option Because music is one of many files that can be shared using P2P software, Free Culture, like Bird, is against online music subscriptions, too.
Free Culture would like UF to adopt a policy of traffic-shaping, which limits the use of bandwidth, but would still allow P2P software to be used on the network.
Traffic-shaping is like putting traffic lights at busy intersections and speed limits on busy highways. Information is allowed; it just takes longer to get to where it is going.
"Students could attend online lectures in harmony with students using P2P software," Baker said.
Universities such as Auburn and Syracuse use traffic-shaping.
Some UF students, such as sophomore Justin Richards, have continued to share music files in spite of ICARUS, with programs such as myTunes.
MyTunes allows users to download music files made available by Apple's online music store, iTunes. Users can search song lists on other computers as long as both PCs are on the same network.
So while Richards cannot swap music files with anyone outside his residence hall, he can trade music with users that may be as close as the next room.
This Internet bubble is better than not being able to swap files at all, said Richards, who has pirated 20 albums since September.
"I have been exposed to artists I never would have listened to," said Richards, whose catalog of music now includes Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Velvet Underground.
ICARUS tracks the file swapping here, too, but Bird said, only 3 percent of students living on campus use myTunes.
The housing network is like the human body, Bird said. "We may have germs, but we're OK. We just don't want massive infection."

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