The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) wrote an open letter to college and university presidents Wednesday, asking them not to become involved in a crackdown on peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing.
We reported in October that the University of Georgia subjected freshman Ben Albert to disciplinary action for simply downloading a movie via the KaZaA peer-to-peer service. The action was taken at the behest of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and seemed to represent a new low in the industry's tactics to maintain a stronghold on channels of entertainment media.
One of the most bizarre parts of the Georgia action was that nobody seemed to know how the MPAA had uncovered Albert's actions in the first place. Most likely, some type of clandestine network monitoring had been employed - a disturbing prospect, since this would suggest surveillance of student file-sharing activities overall. Shortly after this event, the recording industry urged other schools to essentially follow Georgia's example, and the American Council on Education mirrored the sentiment. It seemed that students would soon come under increased monitoring and restrictions in their use of the Internet, in the name of protecting the monopolies of the recording and motion picture industries.
However, EPIC has now responded to these events with its own letter to schools across the nation, warning of the dangers inherent in such invasive measures. The organization makes several broad and powerful statements, including that the monitoring of communications is fundamentally incompatible with the ideals of higher education. The letter states that "monitoring chills behavior, and can squelch creativity that must thrive in educational settings," and goes on to offer that the monitoring requested by the industry is simply "incompatible with intellectual freedom."
While EPIC's statements focus on higher education settings, many of its points apply to the net in general. The intellectual freedom fostered in academe must not be considered any less of a right in homes, libraries, hacker labs, or any other settings where the Internet is an essential tool. By whatever method industry or government might ultimately solve the P2P "problem," a generally less private Internet is not an acceptable side-effect.
We can expect that the more people who are monitored online - especially by private groups with completely selfish agendas - the less likely those people will be to use the medium for a healthy variety of learning and communication. Indeed, EPIC warns that the systems installed by schools to prevent P2P copyright infringement today may be the tools for even more general surveillance in the future.
Libraries, schools, and Internet providers today have a hodgepodge of different Internet policies that permit or restrict different types of use. If America's colleges and universities are able to set a fair standard regarding network surveillance, they will not only become islands of greater Internet freedom, but a fine model by which others may be judged.