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U. of North Carolina Stops File-Sharing Before It Starts

The University of North Carolina has a special message for students who want to access the dorm’s Internet network: “UNC-CHAPEL HILL IS BLOCKING FILE-SHARING THROUGHOUT STUDENT HOUSING.”

That’s at the top of a Web page which pops up on laptops that have file-sharing programs, when they connect to the university’s network. Students aren’t allowed to access the Internet until they’ve uninstalled the offending software or request an exception that the university is calling a “hall pass.”

The pass is an agreement the student signs that says he or she has a file-sharing program but “any copyright violation linked to a device registered under my name will result in an automatic referral to the Dean of Students office.” They also agree to learn what does and does not violate copyright law.

Officials hope the new policy will both prevent students from getting into legal pickles and help the university cut the costs that come with complying with the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which requires institutions to follow up on complaints about copyright infringements on their networks.

The university has already seen a big drop in the number of dorm computers that use file-sharing software, from about 1,000 last year to about 50 this year. Of those 50, about half have opted for the hall pass. The other half remain quarantined and unable to access the network, officials say.

A total of about 11,000 computers are on the dormitory network. The university never learns what is downloaded via the file-sharing programs—just whether or not a computer has those programs.

Until this year, every time a student on the network received a Digital Millennium Copyright Act violation notice, an information-technology employee would contact the student to explain what had happened, and ask the student to take an online course. “All of that added up to a significant amount of time and effort,” said Stan Waddell, the university’s information-security officer. He estimates North Carolina spends $40,000 a year dealing with copyright infringement, and manpower roughly equal to half of one employee’s week, every week of the year.

North Carolina no longer has the time or the resources. It has laid off more than 50 information-technology staffers in the past three years, because of budget cuts.

Tracy Mitrano, director of IT policy at Cornell University, where she also directs the computer-policy and -law program, said she can see why costs would drive a college to consider blocking file-sharing software.

But not every college would want such a wide-ranging prohibition, Ms. Mitrano said. Engineering and science-heavy institutions would have a hard time, for instance, because those fields often require a lot of file-sharing. Cornell, she says, wouldn’t do it because it would violate a student code that emphasizes “freedom with responsibility.”

Regardless of the institution, college students often don’t have solid grasp of copyright laws, don’t know how to properly uninstall programs, “or just have too many other things on their minds to take this issue seriously,” Ms. Mitrano said.

At North Carolina, students who get caught often used to claim ignorance, said Chris Williams, who manages the dorm network, known as ResNET. “Many of them would say that they didn’t know it was illegal,” he said.

Now, ignorance is no longer a defense. “They’re not going to pass go, they’re not going to collect $200,” said Jim Gogan, North Carolina’s director of networking.

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