UPDATE: H.R. 4137 was unanimously approved by the House Education and Labor Committee. Stay tuned for more news and actions you can take to oppose this threat.
After being beaten back in a Senate amendment this past summer, mandatory campus copyright policing is back with a vengeance. The House's latest higher education bill includes nasty requirements for "Campus-Based Digital Theft Prevention," mandating that schools plan to provide legal downloading alternatives and that campuses consider policing copyrights on their networks. Campuses that fail to comply stand to lose massive amounts of federal financial aid funds that go to straight to students. The bill, H.R. 4137, will be marked up by the House Committee on Education and Labor early Wednesday, November 13 so please take action now.
The first requirement -- that schools must consider offering legal downloading alternatives -- could require students to subsidize businesses regardless of their value. Schools that work with private entertainment distribution businesses often pass the cost directly to the students in the form of fee hikes. Meanwhile, those paying students may be unable to use the services due to incompatibility with their equipment or operating system, or the services (known for narrow choices) may simply fail to offer any content of interest to the student.
The second requirement -- that schools must consider technology-based deterrents to infringement -- translates into network filtering or network surveillance, which opens the door for infringement on students' rights. What happens when a filter mistakenly prevents a student from downloading or uploading a licensed work, or a work to be lawfully used under fair use? What happens when surveillance technology decides to flag copies of a student's grades, schedules, or health records for inclusion in a database? Schools may rightly want to protect their students from these problems and maintain the neutrality of their networks by actively avoiding those technologies.
Finally, the potential penalties are extremely disproportionate. As several university presidents wrote in a letter to the bill sponsor, Representative George Miller (D - CA):
Even more alarming, it is our understanding that the consequences of the Secretary deciding that a targeted institution has failed to prevent illegal file sharing would be loss of Title IV student aid eligibility. Such an extraordinarily inappropriate and punitive outcome would result in all students on that campus losing their Federal financial aid [emphasis added] – including Pell grants and student loans that are essential to their ability to attend college, advance their education and acquire the skills necessary to compete in the 21st century economy. Lower income students, those most in need of Federal financial aid, would be harmed most under the entertainment industry's proposal.
This mandate must be stopped, and with the end of the year approaching, congressional committees will be trying to get through legislation quickly. Please take action now and call your representative.