Naval Academy disciplines 85 for Net abuses

Students get demerits, avoid court-martial

Copyright infringements

Computers used to swap music, movies online

April 15, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

The Naval Academy has disciplined 85 students who used a military Internet connection to illegally swap copyrighted music and movies, but it stopped short of carrying out its threat to impose the maximum penalties of expulsion or court-martial, an academy document shows.

The midshipmen, whose computers were seized in a widely publicized raid on Nov. 21, received sanctions ranging from demerits and extra work assignments to loss of privileges and leave, according to a summary of cases obtained by The Sun and an academy official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The midshipmen had used the military college's super-fast T3 Internet line to trade music and movies, a violation of Defense Department policy and federal copyright laws. Some had attached large-capacity disk drives to their computers, turning their dorm room terminals into what one academy official described as bustling Napster-like entertainment bazaars that operated around the clock and became magnets for file swappers around the country.

"Some kids were running miniature Napsters," said the academy official, referring to the now-defunct music-sharing site. "They had enormous drives - multigigabite drives - and they were on all the time. They became little Web sites."

The academy's decision to seize the computers of 92 midshipmen drew national news coverage last fall. It was the most drastic step by a college or university to halt illegal file trading by students. Statements by the academy's spokesman that violators might be expelled or court-martialed fueled debate over how far campuses should go to police and punish students' Internet use.

The recording industry welcomed the academy's aggressive stance, although some academics and civil liberties advocates worried that it would stifle legitimate, though contentious, avenues of research.

The academy spokesman, Cmdr. Bill Spann, declined to comment yesterday on why the school chose not to impose its harshest penalties.

An academy official disclosed yesterday that the raid was spurred less by warnings from the recording industry than by a threat by a Defense Department agency to stop paying for the school's Internet connection. The Defense Research & Engineering Network, which supplies the Academy's Internet connection, found that file trading was consuming an enormous share of the school's bandwidth - a measure of the volume of information that a network can carry at one time.

"They just said they're not in the business of supporting that kind of thing, and that the Naval Academy would have to start picking up the tab if they were going to let that stuff go," said the academy official, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.

A Pentagon spokesman, Glenn Flood, confirmed the broad outlines of that account. "They did their job," he said. "They found some unusually high traffic and notified the academy."

In the months since the seizures, the academy has narrowed the bandwidth available in the Bancroft Hall dormitory, slowing Internet speeds to discourage the exchange of large media files. It also has installed software to restrict so-called peer-to-peer file-sharing - a step that many other colleges, including the U.S. Military Academy and the Air Force Academy, took a few years ago.

Industry cracking down

These moves come as the entertainment industry has been intensifying its anti-piracy campaign on campuses.

Two weeks ago, the Recording Industry Association of America sued students at Princeton University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Michigan Technological University who had swapped a total of 2.1 million music files over campus networks.

In recent months, universities have put in place strict policies to curb online abuses. College officials worry both about media files slowing legitimate Internet use and about liability if their networks turn into flea markets for pirated entertainment.

Last week, Harvard University announced that students caught sharing copyrighted material more than once would lose campus Internet access for a year.

`Serious consquences'

Regardless of the Naval Academy's intentions, its seizure of student computers was a milestone, says Matthew J. Oppenheim, the senior vice president for business and legal affairs at RIAA, a trade group. "It was a wake-up call to many that there can be very serious consequences for engaging in this activity," he said yesterday.

Academy officials seized the computers while midshipmen were in class on Nov. 21.

Of the 92 students whose computers were taken, all but seven were found guilty of misconduct under the school's internal Administrative Conduct System. The academy had given students several warnings before raiding the dorm rooms.

The academy official said that investigators inventoried the seized computers' disk drives and then purged them of illegal downloads and file-swapping software.

The computers were returned to students within a few weeks.

Some were found to contain one or two copyrighted files, while others ran into the hundreds or thousands, the official said.

Though the new restrictions have slowed Internet connections in Bancroft Hall, students doing legitimate work can get full-speed access at computer terminals in the school library.

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