Why is the University of Illinois stumping for the RIAA’s interests?

Nate first pointed me to the latest University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign mass mailing. Since then, the letter has been posted online in a publicly-accessible fashion. In case you wondered why doing business with the RIAA is troublesome, check out what their supporters in the University of Illinois have sent to everyone in the University:

The University does not condone the use of peer-to-peer software for illegal file sharing. Those who engage in it violate U.S. Copyright laws as well as the campus’s own policies, including the Student Code and Policy on the Appropriate Use of the Computer Network. Additionally the University bears significant costs associated with responding to DMCA violation notices and the network capacity absorbed by file sharing reduces its availability for general research, teaching, and administrative purposes.

Since copyright infringement is civilly and criminally punishable, there’s no need for University policy to say anything about it. Such duplication raises the possibility that the University policy will inaccurately capture the complexities of copyright law and be more restrictive than copyright law is. Responding to DMCA notices properly is part of the cost of doing anything online; the only way to avoid it would be to take down one’s Internet connection. This obviously poses far more practical problems then can be accounted for by avoiding DMCA violation notices. Invalid DMCA violation notices are out there (Uri Geller, Michael Crook, NFL, Viacom with help from Google, just to name a few) and not something one can pin on “use of peer-to-peer software for illegal file sharing”. The language above suggests that file sharing is not a proper part of “general research, teaching, and administrative purposes” when just the opposite is true.

Often the software used for the purposes of illegal file sharing comes bundled with ‘spyware’ and other software that maliciously captures personal information that contributes to identity theft. You can learn more about protecting yourself from identity theft by reviewing the information at http://www.cites.uiuc.edu/security/index.html. Further, some file sharing programs, even when used for legitimate purposes, will use your computer to transfer illegally obtained material between other users. I strongly encourage you to remove software used for file sharing as well as to immediately remove any illegally obtained material such as music or movies.

BitTorrent software is the most popular peer-to-peer file sharing software: “BitTorrent accounts for an astounding 35 percent of all the traffic on the Internet — more than all other peer-to-peer programs combined — and dwarfs mainstream traffic like Web pages.“. Most BitTorrent software in use (such as the official client and Azureus) qualifies as free software””software users are free to run, share, and modify at any time for any reason. Free software, unlike proprietary software, grants everyone the freedom to inspect, improve, and share the software. Thus, free software BitTorrent programs are far less likely to include spyware and other malicious code; the community inspects free software and removes the objectionable parts. If you don’t believe they’ll do this, as would be wise, you can inspect and modify the program before you run it (or hire someone to do this for you). Compare that to a proprietary program: No matter how you get proprietary software you set yourself up for all sorts of malevolent programs. The RIAA (and now UIUC) would love for you to believe there’s a link between malevolent software and file sharing programs so that you don’t use a popular means of sharing tracks whose copyrights are held by RIAA members. It’s silly to draw a distinction between what are commonly called peer-to-peer programs (like BitTorrent) and other means of sharing files (like UIUC’s own “NetFiles” service, FTP programs, etc.) on the basis of computer safety. In order to truly understand the proper parameters of this issue, you have to understand software freedom. UIUC should teach students about software freedom for its own sake, not threatening them at the behest of the recording industry.

Calling for UIUC network users to stop using and remove file sharing software is preposterous, reveals who UIUC really works for on this issue, and poses bad consequences for the user. File sharing software is necessary for modern computer use; you would complain if your OS came with no ability to share files between computers. Many free software operating systems are distributed via BitTorrent because BitTorrent allows the community to take on some of the load in distributing data. Discouraging use of file sharing software makes it unnecessarily harder for students to install a free software operating system and enjoy software that respects their freedom.

With the announcement by RIAA, MPAA, and others of the intent to target college students with law suits, it should be noted that many of the students sued have settled out of court for amounts on the order of $4- 5000.

How many of those settlements happened because the students were too poor and scared to defend their case? Will the University legal facilities available to students help them if they are accused of copyright infringement by the RIAA?