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Freshmen at Washington University are perennially into each other's business. Herded onto coeducational floors, most share rooms that aren't much larger than a ritzy hotel bathroom. Many of their digital lives have become intertwined as well, spurred by a file-sharing program that has become increasingly popular at the university this year. The program, called DC++, allows students to download one another's files, from music and movies to software and porn.
"A friend of mine is a very religious person," says freshman Lindsey Chesky, a double major in biology and art. "She told me what her screen name was because I wanted to burn a CD from her. It turns out she had the most porn I've ever seen!"
Last year Wash. U. computer czars reduced each student's available external peer-to-peer bandwidth. The result was drastically increased download times from file-sharing programs like Kazaa and LimeWire. The university took action, says Matt Arthur, the school's director of residential technology services, because rampant downloading was slowing network functions of more legitimate educational value, such as e-mail. Muscle-flexing from groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Sony didn't help, either. "The two issues," says Arthur, "are the bandwidth issue and the copyright issue."
To fill the void, some daring student or students set up a their own computer as a server for DC++ ("DC" is short for "Direct Connect"), a program that allows files to be transferred within an internal network. (Though it's likely that more than one network administrator has been involved, for the purposes of this story we will treat the administrator as one person, whom we shall call "Hal.") The program functions much like the popular Kazaa but has distinct advantages over its better-known counterpart. Namely, it's not bogged down with pop-up ads, and users can download files from it about ten times faster. (Only Wash. U. students and faculty can access the network, which has the address washu.servebeer.com.)
Of course, downloading with DC++ is just as illegal as downloading with Kazaa. But that doesn't stop students, some of whom have been doing it for a couple of years now. DC++ is currently more popular than ever, and some estimate that half of the student body is on the network.
"Everyone on our floor uses it," says Chesky, who estimates that she uses the program about three times a week. "Some people go on it every hour on the hour."
One reason is the plethora of content. Although file sharers are drawing from a potential pool of only about 10,000 students, they have no problem downloading first-run movies, including Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and The Matrix Revolutions, long before they're released on video. "You can get episodes of The OC the day before they come out," Chesky adds, referring to the popular series on the Fox network.
Where do these pirated products come from? No one seems quite sure, although some speculate that students in the film department who receive advance copies of movies and TV shows might be responsible. Other possible culprits are among the university's large crop of foreign students, who go home to countries where copyright controls are less stringent than those in the United States.
In the Wild West of music piracy, Washington University officials don't want to play sheriff. They'd rather be the one-room schoolhouse's headmistress. Arthur says Wash. U.'s policy toward file-sharing is to educate rather than to punish.
"Part of this whole process is education," he says. "Much like our alcohol policy, we want our students to be aware of what they're doing, that what they're doing is considered illegal and that if they're caught, there have been cases of students around the country being sued."
This is in contrast to hard-line stances taken by other area universities. According to a Saint Louis University computer technician who asked to go unnamed, illegal file-sharing by students is "strictly forbidden." He says the school sends out strongly worded e-mails discouraging students from engaging in it. The University of Missouri-St. Louis, meanwhile, attempts to stop file-sharing not by reducing bandwidth but by blocking ports to popular file-sharing programs.
Wash. U.'s Arthur finds that type of action problematic.
"Everybody's university is their own situation," he explains. "We're all striving to do two things: one, comply with our legal obligations, and two, manage our bandwidth so that all of our constituents have full access to what they came to the university for. Which includes a wide variety of things. There are many ways to do research. Peer-to-peer software is, in and of itself, not illegal."
That said, Washington University is occasionally contacted by the RIAA and the Motion Picture Association of America with complaints that students are illegally downloading. When that happens, the school takes action.
"If it's not a repeated offense, we contact the user and let them know we have a complaint," says Arthur. "We tell them that deleting the file is a requirement, and we give them a period of time to respond. If we have repeat offenders, we send them to the student judicial process. That being said, I've never had a repeat offender.