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The Wilds of Internet Protocol

I suspect the music companies may have an awfully good scam going at Dartmouth. Let me explain.

But before I explain, let me casually point out that I am not a lawyer and the below is idle musing, not advice, and not necessarily informed.

Earlier this week Bloomberg reported (the story is below this post) that record companies have let loose on colleges and universities another barrage of extortion letters, each demanding around $5,000 from students. 405 of these “pre-litigation” letters went out; they were addressed to students who, the companies claim, illegally downloaded copyrighted material. As Bloomberg notes—and as an e-mail to students from Dartmouth Dean of the College Dan Nelson confirmed just a few days ago—Dartmouth has been targeted, eleven such letters having recently been received.

Mr. Nelson explains it this way:

Our goal is to share information with you so that you can avoid such a situation and also so that you understand the role of the College in this process.

When the RIAA identifies an apparently unlawful file-sharing transaction conducted via the College computer network, they send a letter to the College identifying the IP address and date/time of the transaction and asking the College to forward the letter to the student to whom the IP address is registered. The letter invites the student to contact the RIAA to negotiate a settlement at a €œsubstantially discounted € rate before a lawsuit is filed. The average settlement is generally around $3,000-$5,000. Students must respond within 20 days of receiving the letter for the lawsuit to be dismissed.

That is probably how the process is explained to every college dean from sea to shining sea. But there seem to be about a thousand things wrong with this account, from a technological point of view.

One is the identification of IP addresses in the first place. They are not secret things at all (yours is 54.159.64.172) but illegal music downloading takes place almost exclusively through peer to peer connections, which means that the computer of one party is directly connected to the computer of the other party. It is not as though Illegal Music, Inc. is selling wrongly-made copies of music files and the Recording Industry Association of America has gained access to its customer list. Illegal transfer takes place between two individuals. Since that is the case, how could one’s IP address be learned?

It is true that, quite often, record industries deploy computers that log on to peer-to-peer networks and falsely purport to be providing MP3 files. Through this tactic, the record companies can learn the IP addresses of computers which have attempted to download copyrighted material. But only attempted—the music companies’ drone computers do not actually contain the material; just junk files with legitimate-sounding filenames. Could it be that companies are assuming that those student computers which did not download illicit material from the record companies’ own computers must, by dint of that failure to download, be successfully downloading copyrighted material elsewhere? There’s no technical justification for such an assumption.

So it is unclear how a private organization, working without the aid of the police, could possibly have a list of IP addresses which it can prove have broken the law. This may be why the music firms offer students a settlement deal even before a suit is filed.

Then there is the thorny issue of tying IP addresses to people. Dean Nelson errs in saying that IP addresses are “registered” to students. At Dartmouth as at many colleges these days, students never own a single IP address for more than the length of a single Internet session. IP addresses are, instead, doled out dynamically by a DHCP server from a store of many thousands owned by Dartmouth. My IP address in Novack is different from my IP address in the Tower Room, which is different from my IP address in Ripley. They are all assigned on the fly. This is the way of the world. Even Comcast Cable customers do not have the same IP address for more than a week or so. The only computers that need to be “registered” permanant addresses are servers. So while it is certainly possible that Dartmouth has been notified that eleven IP addresses at eleven different times did something wrong, it isn’t plain to me how that information could be translated to identify a particular person.

Clients get them dynamically, which means that the IP address I used at dinner could be the same that Joe Blow ‘07 used at breakfast. The only way round this problem? If Dartmouth kept an archive of what IP addresses all computers used at all times. Which would be awfully Orwellian of them.

Ah, but the basic privacy of the Internet mounts yet another obstacle. Just because Joe Blow ‘07’s computer had 129.170.17.4 leased at 9:46 in the morning on 2/1/07, and though the record company knows that that IP address, at that time, tried to download a ruse of an MP3 from one of its drones, who is to say that it was Joe Blow in particular who had that IP? Corporations don’t have this problem, because IPs are rather stably assigned to individual employees, and the ‘network name’ of each computer include the employee’s actual name. And corporate networks are, after all, secure and accessible only with a login. But Dartmouth’s is an open network. The College has no mechanism (or has admitted no mechanism) for tying a particular network connection to an individual.

What should happen if a student does not pay the RIAA $5,000? Mr. Nelson explains:

If the student fails to respond, the RIAA will issue a subpoena to the College that requires the College to provide the RIAA with the student ‘s name and other identifying information. The RIAA then has the option of filing a lawsuit for copyright infringement against the student so identified. Please understand that the College will not disclose any student ‘s information to the RIAA unless a subpoena is issued.
As I say, it is immensely unclear to me how the College could make such an identification. Perhaps I am missing something basic—IT professionals, please e-mail in and advise—but unless Dartmouth has installed identificatory beacons on all of the laptops it sells incoming students, it simply cannot connect an IP and a timestamp with a name.

A disclaimer. I do not illegally download music and neither I nor this page recommends it. Purchase your music on compact disc—the sound quality is better, anyway.

UPDATE: A revision and an extension. E-mailers inform me that ISPs are required by a provision in the DMCA to keep DHCP logs, meaning a college can ascertain which computer had a certain IP leased at a certain time. Orwellian, still, but government-sanctioned. The extension? There is rather firmly no way to connect any of this ‘evidence’ to an individual. ” I may be wrong,” an e-mailer writes, “but I don’t think a single RIAA prosecution has succeeded in the courts yet.”

The Bloomberg report follows…

Music Industry Steps Up Campus Anti-Piracy Campaign (Update2)
2007-03-21 15:42 (New York)


(Adds comment from Boston University in seventh paragraph.)

By Don Jeffrey
March 21 (Bloomberg) — The music industry expanded its
crackdown on illegal on-campus file-sharing to Columbia
University, Dartmouth College and 21 other schools, demanding
students pay as much as $5,000 to head off lawsuits.
The Recording Industry Association of America mailed 405
“pre-litigation letters” in the second wave of its latest
campus anti-piracy campaign, the music industry organization
said in a statement today. Boston University received 50, the
most of any school in this round of mailings.
The letters tell school administrators the e-mail addresses
of the offending students or employees and ask the institutions
to inform the offenders of the demand. The industry said
students accounted for 26 percent of illegally downloaded music
last year. Earlier RIAA demand letters have produced results.
“We have reached settlement agreements with 116
individuals and are finalizing details on a number of others,”
said Jenni Engebretsen, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based
group. She said lawsuits will be “forthcoming for individuals
who did not choose to take advantage of the pre-litigation
settlement opportunity.”
Earlier this month, the association sent 400 demand letters
to 13 schools including 50 to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.
Other colleges targeted today include Purdue University,
Vanderbilt University and University of California campuses in
Berkeley, Los Angeles and Santa Cruz.
“We encourage our students to recognize copyright law,”
Colin Riley, a spokesman for Boston University, said in an
interview. He said officials of the school, with about 32,000
students, had not seen any of the industry’s letters.
Music companies have sued more than 18,000 people in the
U.S., alleging copyright infringement in an attempt to stem
declining music sales. Revenue from CDs is falling and sales
from legal digital downloads haven’t made up for the decline.
More than half of U.S. college students illegally swapped
music and movies last year, accounting for more than 1.3 billion
illegal downloads, the recording industry group said.

—Editor: Bunker

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