Schools declare file-swapping truce

After an initial shock, U.S. universities are learning to live with file swapping among students on campus, despite legal risks and the heavy demands such activities place on computer networks.

When Napster burst onto the Net about two years ago, some campus network administrators blocked the software to avoid lawsuits and conserve resources. Now the legal threats to universities have receded and many of the technical problems that once plagued networks are being solved, giving network administrators more options when setting peer-to-peer usage policies, some college officials say.

"Students are essentially our customers, and we need to try to make them happy," said Russell Taylor, director of academic computing and information systems at Lees-McRae College, in Banner Elk, N.C. "Music and movies are out there to download, so rather than take a hard-and-fast line to block it...we decided it would be best to let it continue, but to limit it down until such a time it does become illegal."

Tolerance of file swapping on campus is partly attributed to the emergence of efficient management tools for network traffic, which could conceivably be used to harshly limit the practice. Companies such as Packeteer and NetReality have been marketing such products to schools for months and claim hundreds of clients.

NetReality this week said that it's latest version of WiseWan will include a new peer-to-peer engine, enabling network managers to quickly identify new bandwidth-hogging applications and apply policies to control usage. For instance, a network manager using WiseWan could automatically see when people tap into file-swapping services such as Morpheus and Gnutella and discover how much bandwidth each person is consuming. The upgrade will also help network mangers identify and monitor HTTP-Tunnel, a technique that hides peer-to-peer traffic by making it resemble regular Internet traffic, enabling it to slip past firewalls.

Universities are learning to use these new tools to inform users that they are indeed monitoring bandwidth usage. Thomas Board, director of technology support services at Northwestern said that peer-to-peer applications are still used within the campus network without restriction. However, the university has set up a Web site to inform people what the bandwidth management system is doing and the rules it has set for students. For instance, on the weekdays between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., the university gives 25 percent of available bandwidth to high-demand applications, such as peer-to-peer networks. During the evenings and weekends, that jumps to 50 percent of available bandwidth.

And at another college, Lees-McRae, they recently installed NetReality's technology, allocating only one third of its T1 line--about 500 kilobytes--to music and film downloads. Although students complained that the technology causes slower download times for file-swapping applications, school officials say they are essentially regulating the traffic, not stopping students from using those applications entirely.

Howard King, the attorney who represented Metallica and Dr. Dre in a complaint against three universities, said schools shut down Napster for three reasons -- part legal, part moral and part technical. But he added that banning peer-to-peer technology on campus is likely too harsh a remedy.

"Not all peer-to-peer networks or peer-to-peer technology are illegal or bad," King said. "I'm sure there are substantial positive uses of these networks."

News source: CNet News

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