Campus Crackdowns: Universities Imposing Harsh Penalties For Illegal Downloaders

Violators can lose Internet service for a week — or for as long as they live on campus.

Among the many harsh realities greeting new and returning college students this week is the realization that some of their schools are rolling out one-strike-and-you're-out rules regarding illegal downloading.

For those accustomed to downloading at will, that means if you are caught digitally downloading music, your school Internet service could be suspended for a week, a month, a year — or for as long as you live on campus.

From Boston to Berkeley, new rules for punishing college students who use campus computer networks to illegally download music, movies or games carry some pretty harsh penalties, with the University of California at Berkeley enacting some of the most serious. As congressional committees propose everything from the installation of meters that can read and monitor Internet traffic on campus networks to potentially cutting off federal student aid for institutions that don't crack down on piracy, the university that has traditionally housed one of the most liberal student bodies in the country is taking a decidedly conservative approach to file-sharing.

The university's move is an attempt to save its students from receiving one of the hundreds of "pre-litigation" notices the Recording Industry Association of America has been sending to schools in recent years. The notices, which are sent first to administrators, offer students the chance to pay between $3,000 and $6,000 to avoid a lawsuit if the RIAA finds evidence that they are illegally sharing files (see "RIAA Rep Encourages Downloader To Drop Out Of College To Settle Suits").

Under the new UC Berkeley rules, if a student ignores a take-down notice from the university, their Internet service will automatically be shut down for a week with no notice. A second offense brings a loss of in-room Internet access for a month, which is the same penalty as before, though students can still log on in campus computer labs and other buildings.

"It'll scare people. They'll realize, 'I'm not invisible,' " Muneeb Malik, 19, a junior biology major, told biology major told the Oroville Mercury-Register. "They'll probably protest in some sort of way, but what are they going to say? 'I want to download illegally'?"

As part of fall orientation this week, UC Berkeley is schooling the thousands of students moving into dorms about the new rules with the "Learn Before You Burn" campaign, which includes a mandatory video on the benefits of legal downloading and the consequences of illegal file-swapping.

Before registering for in-room Internet services, students also have to electronically acknowledge having read and understanding explicit warnings about copyright infringement and its ramifications.

"It's our job to make sure students who live in the residence halls fully understand the consequences of illegal file-sharing," said Dedra Chamberlin, manager of residential computing services at UC Berkeley. "We don't want students to end up facing a lawsuit or $3,000 fine and saying, 'Why didn't anyone warn me about this?' "

In July, the University of Kansas announced an even more strict one-strike policy for infringers on its campus-wide ResNet site, replacing the former three-strike rule covering not just music, but any illegally downloaded material, including movies, games and software. According to the new policy, if a notice of a copyright violation is received, access to ResNet will immediately be suspended for five days to allow the student to provide proof for an appeal.

"If you are caught downloading copyrighted material, you will lose your ResNet privileges forever," reads the policy. "No second notices, no excuses, no refunds. One violation and your ResNet Internet access is gone for as long as you reside on campus." Interestingly, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, despite its tough new rules, the university has joined other schools in refusing to pass along the pre-litigation letters from the RIAA to students, citing concerns over students' privacy.

According to The Boston Globe, schools in the Boston area are also cracking down with similar orientations on the dangers of downloading and, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst — which ranked sixth in the nation for copyright complaints in February — free downloads for students using the ad-supported Ruckus system, which is now in use in more than 130 schools. By February of last year, UMass/Amherst was hit with 897 copyright-infringement complaints, up from 365 the previous year.

Though UMass administrators have tried hard to promote Ruckus as an alternative to illegal downloading, the paper said it doesn't appear to be working as well as on other campuses, such as Michigan State University, where administrators report that the number of complaints have plummeted since Ruckus was introduced last year. It's also helped that some landlords in East Lansing, where the school is located, have included free Napster memberships as part of their rental packages for student tenants.

In an attempt to emulate that success, UMass dorms will be plastered this week with posters laying out the serious consequences of piracy. Penalties at Harvard, which has received just a handful of complaints from the RIAA, are even more intense than Berkeley, with two-time offenders losing their network privileges for a year.

At Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, administrators are trying to get their message across during orientation with a series of "digital self-defense" lectures with names like "Don't Get Sued," which are planned to continue throughout the year.

All of this is good news tto RIAA spokesman Jonathan Lamy. "College students are some of the best music fans — that's a great thing for the music community," he said in a statement to MTV News. "With services like Ruckus, the music industry is offering college students a free, legal way to enjoy music online.

"For these kinds of new models to flourish, it's essential that universities implement policies that engage students about enjoying music legally, hold people accountable when they do break the law and protect computer networks from the damaging viruses coupled with many illicit services."