While the College Access and Opportunity Act being worked out in Congress has the potential to make higher education more available to low- and middle-class students, a short clause in the lengthy legislation could wrongly put universities and students at risk for losing important federal funding to turn colleges into Internet watchdogs, charged to keep students from illegally sharing files through on-campus networks.
Congress could harm the wrong students if it does not strike parts of legislation requiring colleges to inform students in detail of copyright infringement laws and penalties associated with peer-to-peer file sharing. Writing legislation that could give the record and movie industries a strong tool to prosecute students and colleges, the filesharing clause would bring Congress into a legal battle between universities and the Recording Industry Association of America that unreasonably asks schools to surrender information about Internet use and prosecute their own students.
Filesharing has been shown to evolve where legal obstacles arise and cannot be precisely tracked, according to Boston University professor Azer Bestavros. Until filesharing can be precisely tracked without error, as severe a penalty as the loss of federal funding for an entire institution is unreasonable.
The insertion of a clause into the House bill that deals with filesharing seems misplaced in a bill meant to improve education opportunities. While the Senate did not deal with filesharing in its draft of the legislation or find it an issue relevant to higher education, the House legislation raises questions about why the clauses were included and if the powerful corporations that sell music and movies motivated legislators for reasons that are not especially important to the public good. Legislators should move to make sure this potentially draconian tool for the RIAA is removed from an act meant to help students.