Illustration by Bob AulThe latest controversy brewing in our nation's universities isn't about sex, sororities or Satanism. It's about a little website called Napster.
Napster (www.napster.com) offers software that allows Internet users to exchange MP3 music files. The site matches users looking for a particular genre, artist or song with other users who have the desired file, allowing them to transfer a copy of the MP3 to their computer. The service has raised hackles among some in the music industry, who argue that Napster makes it easy to pirate music.
Since releasing the beta version of its software late last year, San Mateo-based Napster has rocketed to popularity among college students. Popularity may prove its downfall. Thus far, Oregon State, Northwestern University, Washington State, Harvard, UC San Diego and many others have banned the service.
Students say that's censorship. Chad Paulson, a sophomore at Indiana University, founded Students Against University Censorship in mid-February after his school deep-sixed Napster from its network. "Should public universities such as Indiana University be allowed to censor what the students and faculty obtain on the Internet?" Paulson asked in an open letter on his site (gbcentral.com/censorship).
But the schools say it's not about censorship—it's about bandwidth. Officials at Indiana University said the school cut off access to Napster after they discovered the service was consuming 61 percent of their bandwidth, slowing network speed and costing the university thousands of dollars. Northwestern University banned the service when it found Napster was taking up a third of its bandwidth.
Paulson has set up a petition on his site to try to pressure schools that have banned Napster into reinstating the service, hoping to collect 10,000 signatures by mid-March. At press time, he claimed nearly 2,700 people had signed on.
Napster says it's grateful for the "incredible" student support but is "keenly aware of the issues faced by the university," said vice president of marketing Liz Brooks. "This is genuinely a bandwidth issue, and we hope to work together to address it."
Help-desk personnel at Cal State Fullerton said Napster had caused no problems on their network. But at UC Irvine, they're a bit more concerned.
"We have noticed a general increase in Internet traffic, particularly over the past six months," said Garrett Hildebrand of UCI's office of academic computing. "We're in the process of trying to figure out the source of all that. Napster is definitely being hit a lot by students at UCI, but it's not a significant problem for us yet."
Kevin Ansel, a computer-resource manager for UCI's residential housing network, which sees the most student use, says that although Napster poses a potential problem, he's not leaning toward a unilateral ban. "Nationwide, Napster has been the talk of residential-network managers," he said. "We have not noticed a bandwidth problem at this time, but we have seen the Napster traffic. We are looking at it closely."
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The bandwidth dilemma is a particular problem for university systems, which have traditionally favored the free flow of information over their networks. Businesses can easily restrict what their employees look at online, filtering out sports sites, porn sites and other sources of recreational joy at work, but the lines are a little fuzzier at academic institutions.
"In the University of California system, the general approach is to have a completely open network," Hildebrand said. "We don't block particular sites on the Internet because it's really difficult to tell the difference between someone doing homework or research and someone doing something not in line with work or studies. We don't make a lot of distinctions between what's appropriate and what's not. But if someone is engaged in an activity that is offensive to others or is using too much bandwidth, we have every right to go down there and take care of it on a case-by-case basis. If [Napster] became a problem for us, we would address it in the same way."
On Paulson's site, the list of universities that have banned the service has swelled to 67; more additions are likely. It's possible, of course, that Napster itself may find a way to reduce its bandwidth. And there are other possible solutions than unilaterally squelching the service; Hildebrand suggested that simply limiting the amount of bandwidth that Napster could take up would be a viable solution. But at least in Orange County, for now there are no plans to stop the music.
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