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Campuses seek compromise over popular bandwidth hog
(CNN) -- As students and administrators square off over whether colleges should ban a popular music download program choking campus Internet networks, some have suggested a middle path: monitoring the bandwidth use of individual students.
University students across North America have taken to copying and sharing online songs with Napster, which easily downloads digital music in the MP3 format and allows users to trade MP3s with other Napster users.
But the program has slowed many academic computer networks to a crawl, prompting dozens of universities like San Diego State and the University of Chicago to ban it. That action, however, has spurred a chorus of protests over what critics call university censorship.
Seeking a compromise, some universities are considering allowing access to the Internet software, provided students do not exceed their allotted bandwidth allowance.
Creating armies of de facto servers
A beta program released only last year, Napster transforms networked PCs into de facto servers, allowing whole armies of Napster users to exchange music.
It also seriously drains bandwidth, the catchall term for the amount and speed of data that can move over a network, causing nightmarish slowdowns for users.
Universities banning Napster have estimated that the program accounted for in some cases more than 50 percent of bandwidth use on their computer networks. The ensuing slowdown, administrators say, impeded legitimate academic research on the Internet.
Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon decided to ban Napster last November after determining that it accounted for 20 percent of bandwidth use.
'Our only option was blocking it'
'"It was growing exponentially. Our only option was blocking it," said Chris White, OSU residential network coordinator. "There hasn't been a problem since."
But campus protestors consider such restrictions infringements on their rights. Sophomore Chad Paulson has helped organize Students Against University Censorship at Indiana University, another school that implemented a Napster ban.
"Simply banning Napster without consulting the students is definitely the wrong way to go," he said.
Students Against University Censorship claims more than 100 universities in the United States, Canada and Mexico have banned Napster. Some 6,000 people had signed an online petition to protest, according to the group's Web site.
"I don't think that it's a good idea to ban Web sites that are legal," echoes Tracey Kelley, student body president of the University of Southern California. Kelly and other students met last month with administrators of the Los Angeles college to discuss Internet software procedures.
Schools ponder bandwidth monitoring
"The problem wasn't with Napster, but with about 60 students who where using excessive amounts of bandwidth," Kelley said.
Kelley expected his school to issue guidelines this week. Students will remain free to use Napster, but their bandwidth use will be monitored, he said. Should students require more bandwidth for academic purposes, they can obtain approval from a professor or advisor, he added.
Alfred Kildow, executive director of the USC news service, noted that traffic on a campus network quadrupled in a short time, potentially compromising its capabilities. The university determined that Napster was a prime culprit.
But he downplayed expectations that new guidelines were imminent. "We continue to assess the situation and have no plans now regarding the policy. It could change tomorrow, or never," he said.
Although OSU banned Napster, White thinks that monitored bandwidth use would be a better option.
The ban is "a short term solution. The students will be able to get around it," he said. "There are other programs coming out just like Napster. We can't block them all, nor would we want to."
White said OSU is considering monitoring bandwidth use and limiting outgoing traffic. The university has not worked out the details, but a monitoring system would most likely have many automated features.
"We don't have the resources to look over the shoulder of every student. It's just impossible," he said.
Paulson agrees that an Internet software ban is ineffective: "Students are getting access to proxy servers, which allow access to various things blocked by the university firewall."
Napster popular, but troubles abound
Napster, the brainchild of a 19-year-old, plans to release a more powerful version of the software in March. The test version has been available for about six months, but already boasts millions of users.
Rival programs could unseat Napster as king of the MP3 trading software heap. Imesh, a similar application for video downloads and uploads, has become increasingly popular. While iMesh is not strictly a competitor, programs that can download MP3s are becoming more common.
Legal troubles have beset the San Mateo, California-based company. The Recording Industry Association of America has sued Napster, claiming it encourages copyright infringements. If any of the MP3 song files are copyrighted - and many come from signed artists - transferring them with Napster amounts to piracy.
A Napster representative declined comment, referring questions to the marketing department, which by press time had not replied.
But according to its Web site, Napster "supports the rights of artists and copyright holders and seeks to comply with applicable laws and regulations governing copyright."
Coming soon: A micro boombox
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