Is it censorship or is it bandwidth?
To members of the 5-day-old Students Against University Censorship, the sudden number of colleges barring Napster, the online MP3 file-sharing program, smacks of censorship. To information technology departments in universities, the issue is network space.
"State-funded universities should not ban Internet sites that are highly used by the students unless the network cannot function," Chad Paulson, a sophomore in computer science at Indiana University, writes in a mission statement on his Web site, which was set up to fight the trend.
But he's fighting his own school, as well as universities across the country from Oregon State to Harvard, who also have stopped access to the popular service.
The six-month-old Napster, based in San Mateo, Calif., was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America in November. The problem? While there are many legal MP3 files that can be traded, there are no protections in the program to prevent the illegal trade of copyrighted material.
Indiana University banned access to Napster on their network last week because it eats up bandwidth. But Mark Bruhn, Indiana's IT policy officer, has been in contact with the RIAA in the past over the intellectual property issue.
"Over the last couple of years we've probably received 10 to 20 complaints where they stated that they'd found files illegally stored by some of their member artists on personal computers," Bruhn said. But that hasn't happened in about six months.
Bruhn reports that there's "just one reason for filtering Napster: it's an application used primarily for recreation that was consuming an expensive resource." Internet services cost the university about $25,000 a month to maintain. By two weeks ago, 61 percent of their bandwidth had been lost to Napster use.
"We're thinking that by this week or into next week, it'd be 85 percent," Bruhn says. The slowdown became obvious to Indiana's IT department last November; he reports that their network is zipping along now.
Despite the huffing and puffing about censorship, universities say it's basically a technical difficulty. Allen Cubbage, VP of university relations at Northwestern University, reports that they cut off access to Napster after they found it was using a third of their total bandwidth. "We see it not as a content issue, but a resource issue," he says. Cubbage reports little backlash from their students, though. "Northwestern's students are a pretty serious bunch. It's not an issue for these students."
Napster CEO Eileen Richardson also agrees it's a bandwidth problem. "I think the universities have an issue. They have bandwidth and they see it being used up. We are very interested in working with the universities."
Bruhn reports Indiana's telecom people are communicating with Napster to help remedy the bandwidth problem. "If it stays within the bounds of reasonable personal use, we'd have to re-evaluate our decision," he says.