By Christine McCluskey
An increased level of illegal activity on Bryn Mawr’s campus computer netork has culminated in a letter of reprimand and zero-tolerance for such activity, which has expanded over the past several months. The illegal behavior has most often occurred in the form of students distributing copyrighted material, such as MP3 files, without the consent of the copyright holder.
Systems Administrator Jennifer Harper said that Computing Services learns of illegal activity only through notification from an outside source. “[Illegal activity] is not something we look for,” noted Elysa Weiss, associate director of Operations and Network Services.
Enough outside sources were contacting Bryn Mawr about illegal activity at the College that Dean of the Undergraduate College Karen Tidmarsh sent an email to all undergraduate students Jan. 18, making plain that misuse of the College’s network “will not be tolerated.” Although faculty, staff and graduate students were also notified, according to Weiss, undergraduates were especially targeted, as they have been the ones most responsible for the illegal activity thus far.
This is probably because they have more time for, and more interest in, MP3s and similar technology, Weiss explained.
Harper was quick to point out that “MP3s are not inherently illegal,” and it was the distribution of MP3s without consent that was the problem.
Weiss said that students are often unaware of what constitutes illegal network activity, as well its associated consequences. She has approached six students since the beginning of the school year to talk with them about their questionable activity on the network. She said that none of them completely understood that their behavior could result in severe penalties.
Said Weiss, “I can see why students don’t understand the implications of such activity.” She said that distributing copyrighted material without consent is just as plainly illegal as photocopying a whole book however, students do not seem to consider the technologically-advanced copyright infringement is equal to the more tangible act.
Tidmarsh’s email paralleled Weiss’ view. “In some cases, the students were unaware that what they were doing was wrong and I am concerned about people getting into serious trouble,” Tidmarsh wrote.
According to College Counsel Samuel Magdovitz, in most cases, that trouble would probably not result in criminal penalties, but the student would need to pay money in damages.
As Tidmarsh made clear in her letter, the offending student would not be entitled to College-provided defense. “We wouldn’t be able to defend the student in a case like this – there are insurance issues that wouldn’t allow it,” he said.
Magdovitz said that alerting the community to the problem was a “proactive” measure to “protect both the student and the school.” He said that he hoped students would stop their misuse of the network after the problem was brought to their attention, but, regardless, the notification would help Bryn Mawr if an outside party brought legal action against the College because of illegal network activity. However, past cases of illegal activity on college networks has resulted in litigation against not the schools owning the networks, but with the students themselves. “Individuals can clearly he held liable,” he said.
Resides wanting to keep students out of legal trouble, Weiss said that her other major reason for bringing this matter to the community’s attention was simply the negative effect that such illegal activity has been having on the College’s resources. Network misuse often results in an enormous increase in the amount of outside traffic visiting the network, draining the College’s resources. Bryn Mawr’s 10-megabit Internet feed is shared with Haverford and Swarthmore, and “when one college is using the whole feed, it’s affecting the other schools,” Weiss said.
She and Harper provided the example of how, when one Swarthmore student website was involved in illegal distribution, it used the whole feed for all of Thanksgiving weekend. This activity affected the entire tri-college network. “It even brought the three libraries to a
standstill,” Weiss said.
The size of the feed has not changed since six years ago, when just two Bryn Mawr dorms were networked and 75 students had online access in their rooms. This year, all of the larger dorms are networked, and 911 students are online.
Harper and Weiss agreed that students increased knowledge and use of computer technology in recent years has made illegal activity that consumes College resources more of a problem than before. “When we started networking, we saw [the network] as mainly for educational and research purposes…now it’s such a huge part of daily life,” commented Harper.
Weiss said Tidmarsh’s email seems to have made its point. “There was a lot of [illegal] activity going on prior to the email going out…and we’ve had to talk to only three students since the email,” she said.