Students that receive notices from the RIAA accusing them of illegal filesharing don't have many options. Innocent or not, their choices are limited to either paying the $3000-$5000 settlement, or going to court — where the RIAA's deep pockets guarantee an outrageously expensive legal battle.
But universities themselves do have ways to fight the RIAA's strong arm tactics, and more and more of them are choosing to quietly fight back. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports this week that schools are growing resentful of the constant stream of pre-litigation letters from the RIAA, and the costly investigations that come with them:
Responding to RIAA notices used to be part-time work for one person, said William C. Dougherty, assistant director for systems support at Virginia Tech. "Now he's doing it full time and has an assistant," he said. "Our attorneys are also involved on almost a daily basis, as am I."
The article describes several ways universities are resisting the RIAA. Some are refusing to forward the RIAA's letters to students, claiming that doing so conflicts with their responsibilities under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Others are trying to quash subpoenas for the identity of students linked with a given IP address by claiming such requests place an "undue burden" on the school.
These shifts in policy, made with little fanfare or press coverage, are commendable. But it would have been better if schools had avoided getting entangled in the RIAA's losing battle from the start. As the Chronicle article notes, the RIAA response to university non-cooperation is to cite earlier willingness to forward pre-litigation letters and respond to subpoenas.
As EFF's Senior Staff Attorney Fred Von Lohmann wrote in an editorial way back in 2003, universities would be better off if they refused to keep track of IP numbers:
Campus computer networks... do not have to keep track of who has what IP number at any given time. By properly configuring their campus networks, colleges and universities can shuffle IP numbers among different individuals on a regular basis, a common practice among ISPs. That way, when the subpoena arrives, the administrators can honestly say that they have no identifying information to provide.
Institutions of higher education have an important job, and that job is to educate their students — not to play along with the RIAA's intimidation game. By protecting their students' privacy, universities can focus on their mission and avoid the unnecessary headaches and legal problems that the recording industry seems bent on creating.