Stanford’s New DMCA Policy and changing the discussion

On Tuesday, May 15, 2007, Stanford announced to its student body a new DMCA complaint policy– specifically, the policy includes implementation of “reconnection fees” and represents a significant change in the way the University has handled complaints thus far. For complete information on the new policy, go to: http://www.stanford.edu/dept/legal/recent/DMCAReconnectfee5-11-07.Web.pdf (and if you have questions, contact Senior University Counsel Lauren Schoenthaler at lks at stanford dot edu).

Obviously, I’ve been sitting on commenting on this announcement for a couple of weeks, partly because I’ve been busy with my own life and partly because I wanted to be sure about what I wanted to say on the issue. On one hand, I’m a current employee of the University– I work for Student Computing and Residential Computing— and no matter how I feel about the policy itself, I have to enforce it to whatever extent my job requires. On the other hand, I obviously have an opinion about the policy, one way or another, just as I have strong opinions about file-sharing, copyright, the DMCA, and especially how they all relate to students and universities, and feel that this is an important issue to comment on, as I have before on previous University policies. On top of that, in addition to being an employee, I’m also a Stanford alumna (class of 2001, BS in Computer Science) and often find myself deeply invested in University policy and how it generally treats its students. That’s not to say that other Stanford employees who are not alumni don’t feel this way as well, but I mention it to point out why I find myself so frustrated so often– my four years at Stanford as a student were an extremely important part of my life, as college years are for most people, and when faced with policies such as this one, I am particularly bothered because I see them as the University stepping away from what I valued so much about my undergraduate experience and why I’m (for the most part) proud to call myself a member of the Stanford community. In any case, my point is that the above touches on the complicated relationship I have with the University, probably why I don’t sleep at night as well as I should, and why I haven’t blogged about the announcement yet despite a fair amount of national press coverage.

The truth is that the blogosphere commentary that picked up the story within two days of the announcement hit on a lot of the immediately obvious issues– the appearance that Stanford is turning DMCA complaints into a money-making business (modifying the Stanford S into a dollar sign was a particularly nice touch), that Stanford’s policy is particularly harsh and perhaps a disproportionate reaction to being placed on the MPAA’s 25 most wanted list, and the general feeling that the policy reflects poorly on the University and how it treats it students. DMCA complaints are, after all, allegations only (and there’s been plenty of stories of, in one way or another, bogus complaints) and to take such a hard line against alleged complaints as opposed to proven offenses/violations of the law sends a negative message about Stanford’s attitude towards its students– at least when it comes to choosing between bowing to the legal pressures and threats of the entertainment industry and standing behind treating students honestly and fairly. (To be honest, I think the “three strikes” policy already in place where students lose Stanford network privileges, including their network logins, after three DMCA complaints is overly harsh and started us down this slippery slope.) Slashdot coverage and comments even include thoughts such as students choosing to apply or attend other schools competitive with Stanford because of this policy and what it reflects about the University.

For me, the sad thing is when I found out about the policy change– only about a day in advance– I actually wasn’t that surprised. A year or two ago, my head would probably have exploded, my blood pressure rising, and there would have been a lot of yelling and swearing. But somewhere in the last couple of years, like I said, we already started down that slippery slope and to be honest, it’s not like we reinvented the wheel here– other schools have had similar “reconnection fee” systems in place for a while. My only point would be that calling it a “reconnection fee” doesn’t make anybody feel any better and, in the end, is simply misleading (at least for the first complaint, you can get reconnected without paying a fee). We should call it a fine because that’s what it is and that’s what it’s meant to be– I don’t agree with it, I don’t like it, but I at least understand it. The University has obviously decided that the current system is not sufficiently punitive, that inflicting fines is the only way to further discourage illegal file-sharing, and that $100, $500, and $1000 today as prices are measures of how severe the punishment should be and/or how important discouraging file-sharing is. In hindsight, I would have probably preferred this measure over taking someone’s network privileges away– it’s nearly impossible to be a student in today’s computing environment without network access; it’s probably a lot easier to scrape together some money.

The interesting thing about all of the negative coverage surrounding Stanford’s new policy is that I have seen some change in the national discussion– maybe it took Ohio University completely shutting down p2p file-sharing on its network or Stanford implementing this new policy, but the discussion is finally turning to why colleges and universities are bearing the burden of policing copyright for the entertainment industry and why all of their measures so far have failed to satisfy the RIAA, MPAA, and Congress itself. Not only are these already under-staffed, under-funded non-profit organizations being asked to spend precious resources policing networks, responding to complaints, and shutting down repeat violators, but they are now being asked to start inflicting monetary fines and even academic disciplinary actions, including expulsion, an area I think is far beyond the reach of the entertainment industry or Congress. When is it enough?

Finally, as I sit here listening ironically to Public Enemy at this very moment, I really do wish and hope that people start to fight the power. The policy announcement did not contain any stipulations on exactly how to challenge the complaints going on your Stanford record (as opposed to a legal counter-claim, e.g.), how to challenge the “reconnection fee” assessment, or the ensuing process thereafter. I think students are entitled to due process and they’re going to have to start demanding it. I hold no hope that Stanford is going to change or take back this policy, but I wish one of our sister institutions would stand up and start the fight– those schools didn’t make it on the top 25 because those student bodies objectively have the greatest amount of file-sharing. They made it onto that list because the RIAA and/or the MPAA targets those schools and in the same way that they target students– people who have little knowledge about their legal options or resources to defend themselves– they target specific colleges– institutions that have enough name recognition to make the papers, but that are afraid enough of what would happen if all of the entertainment industry’s lawyers came crashing down on their heads. But if top-tier schools that have large endowments and profess themselves to be leaders in technology, politics, law, and social awareness don’t start standing up for their students and for themselves, we’re only going to continue losing this battle.

Read: Stanford to hit P2P users in the wallet with reconnection fees
Illegal Internet users to face fines (The Stanford Daily)
Copyright Silliness on Campus By Fred von Lohmann (EFF)
A Rough-and-Tumble Debate on File Sharing