When the music industry filed lawsuits last week against 261 people for trading songs online, students living on the University of Nevada, Reno campus were unlikely targets.
That's because their computers have been monitored for the past five years.
The school is among the first in the nation to measure all the Internet traffic on campus in an effort to halt the illegal distribution of copyrighted material, including music and movies.
Some students are apprehensive about the monitoring. But university officials and a civil libertarian said the measure was carefully crafted to ensure privacy is protected.
The policy is intended to help keep the students and the university out of court for using music-sharing networks like the former Napster, said Steven Zink, UNR's vice president of information technology.
"When Napster was in its heyday, I talked to the Student Senate and to students in the residence halls about how this actually does cost people their rightful income," Zink told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
"And there's always been this sense that they're not going to go after students or kids. Wrong!" he said of the recording and film industries.
"They want to make a point. They've paid for these intellectual properties and they want to get reimbursed for them."
UNR has disciplined two student employees within the last three years for using their work computers to download music without paying for it, officials said.
Some UNR students are uneasy about having the Internet equivalent of Big Brother peering over their shoulders.
"I feel a little disturbed by it, but not too much," said Howard Knudsen as he used one of the computers in UNR's library.
"Considering I'm using the university's broadband, they would have the legal right to monitor my use," he said.
Knudsen, a 19-year-old accounting major from Sparks, said he understands the recording industry's need to protect its intellectual property rights like any other property right. But he thinks it has been heavy-handed levying tens of thousands of dollars in student fines.
"It seems pretty subjective, the way they're going about it. And the ones they're prosecuting are not just the major violators, but random users," he said.
Sheldon Steinbach, staff member for a task force of educators, recording and film representatives and congressmen, said he believes UNR was one of the first colleges in the nation to address the problem of campus networks being used to pirate music and films.
"To the best of my knowledge, there are very few other institutions that gave the matter much attention until we formed the task force last December," Steinbach said of the Joint Committee of the Higher Education and Entertainment Communities.
The committee formed three task forces, including a Technology Task Force, to find technological solutions that colleges and universities could use to prevent the distribution of copyrighted content and bandwidth usage by peer-to-peer systems.
Richard Siegel, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said the ACLU helped negotiate a computer-use policy with the university about five or eight years ago.
That policy included requiring anyone using the university's unr.edu computer network to agree to conform to local, state and federal law, said Siegel, who's also a UNR political science professor.
"So we do have that obligation, and implicit in that would be a certain amount of monitoring," he said.
But the university also has to balance its obligation to protect users privacy while not allowing its network to be used for illegal purposes, Siegel said, be it downloading copyrighted music or child pornography.
"The university, as the Internet service provider, has a legal responsibility and a liability, but at the same time, it's also committed to the users privacy rights through our computer-use agreement," he said.
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