Digital Nation: Napster Ban Prompts Compromise, Petitions, Subversion

California campus finds alternative to blocking MP3 program, while students at other schools get restless.

(This is another in a continuing series of reports about music on the Internet.)

Senior Writer Chris Nelson reports:

When students at the University of Southern California began using the Napster MP3 trading program, Phil Reese knew he had what he calls a "hockey stick" problem on his hands — the kind of dilemma whose severity skyrockets off the chart, like the curve of the stick.

Napster, which dozens of schools already have banned for hogging their Internet resources, had not yet overwhelmed the cyber pipelines at USC. But it was on its way to doing so, said Reese, executive director for the Los Angeles school's Information Services Division.

"We're at the blade of the hockey stick now, and we're about to run up the shaft," he said. "If I did something now, I knew that I could avoid problems later."

Rather than block the program entirely, Reese proposed regulations on how much Internet bandwidth any student could use at one time. That would allow students to still use Napster, but not to swamp the system.

On other campuses, however, students are getting restless. One hopes to attract 50,000 names for his online petition supporting Napster. Another is helping fellow students skirt bans by showing them how to disguise Internet traffic so it doesn't look as if it's going to Napster.

The USC approach seems like a simple enough compromise.

But few, if any, other schools have come up with the same solution. According to Chad Paulson, a Napster user and Indiana University sophomore who has been tracking the bans, more than 100 schools have blocked the program.

Why Schools Are Nixing Napster

The impulse to nix Napster from campus systems likely has been prompted by both the program's popularity and the controversy that surrounds it. Just four months after debuting its product last summer, the Napster company was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America. The record company trade group claims Napster facilitates piracy by helping people distribute MP3s without permission of the copyright owner.

In January, Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., blocked access to Napster network traffic, saying its users were hoarding up to 30 percent of the school's Net resources. A flood of schools followed suit.

Here's how the program works: When a user launches the Napster software while connected to the Internet, computers at the company's headquarters in San Mateo, Calif., look at the MP3s on that person's hard drive. The program allows users to search for MP3s on the hard drives of any other connected user and helps users trade files with each other.

Movement To Save Program

But just as the movement to block the program is sweeping across campuses, a counter movement to rescue it — or subvert the ban — is growing in response.

David Weekly, a Stanford University senior, has posted instructions (at david.weekly.org) for accessing Napster through proxy sites. The technique allows users to sneak by college blocks by routing traffic to and from Napster through anonymous intermediary addresses.

Weekly said he's trying to give students a stronger hand in the debate with school administrators. "If the universities had made a larger effort to hold some sort of frank discussion, to say, 'Help — what do we do here?' I think there would have been a better response from students," he said. So far, Stanford has not blocked Napster.

Paulson, whose school has blocked the program, agrees that universities could have prevented a backlash by talking with students about dwindling resources. He's gathered more than 5,000 names for his online petition to restore Napster access (at www.savenapster.com). Most signers are from affected schools. His goal is to get 10 times as many signatures, at which point he'll present his protest document to university presidents.

Paulson said he's only used Napster to trade authorized downloads from places such as K Records, which offers free cuts, including Make Up's "Save Yourself" (RealAudio excerpt).

He claims university bans violate the First Amendment rights of students, whose tuition pays for the schools' Internet systems. But he doesn't agree with Weekly's guerrilla approach to skirting the bans.

"Instead of fighting it and resolving the issue, they're taking the easy way out," he said. "They're going around the issue, much like the universities took the easy way out by blocking it, instead of dealing with their students and making them responsible."

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