Piracy control and college affordability funding shouldn’t be linked together

As the Internet continues to consolidate its role as the perfect medium for file sharing, the problem of illegal downloading has grown exponentially. What’s worse, while media pirates of all shapes and sizes remain thoroughly unscathed by any would-be prevention, America’s postsecondary institutions have been left to foot the bill.

The College Opportunity and Affordability Act – recently passed in the House by a 354-58 vote – aims to make postsecondary education more accessible.

However, its misleading name hides a substantial and somewhat extraneous caveat: In order to receive the aid, colleges and universities must work to diminish illegal downloading by students.

In response, many collegiate representatives are questioning the decision to include the stipulation in a bill whose purpose is to combat the costs of higher education. While working to make college more affordable is commendable, and the need to fight Internet piracy it clearly growing, the lack of any relation between these issues demands they be handled separately. Moreover, that fighting Internet piracy has effectively been made the responsibility of educational institutions is as inappropriate as it is irrational.

Without a doubt, the intended goal of the bill has no shortage of legal merit. As tuition prices continue rising in the shadow of our sluggish economy, the need for financial aid is quickly becoming paramount. To that end, the bill is sure to do a great deal of good. As such, an obvious question presents itself: Why limit the scope of these improvements by requiring colleges to control an illegal practice for which they are unequivocally blameless? After all, most postsecondary institutions (including the UI) have already taken steps to prevent illegal downloading on the many computers under their control. However, there is no shortage of private Internet access, even among students living on campus. The potential for colleges to prevent such crimes is questionable, at best.

In light of these discouraging odds, the bill will also attempt to control illegal media downloads by providing a legal way for students to download media. As the saying goes: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The bill asks schools to provide alternatives to the widespread process of illegal file sharing. While it is not clear what form such an alternative would take, college officials say one thing is certain: It’s not going to be cheap. When all is said and done, schools will be required to pursue an expensive array of deterrents and alternatives in order to receive some much needed financial aid. Oddly, the bill’s intended purpose seems to be thwarted by its own mandates – a paradox still unacknowledged by those who would sign it into law.

To agitate the situation further, the only member of Congress to advocate the removal of such requirements was unable to make his voice heard. Rep. Steve Cohen’s proposed alterations went by the wayside when tornadoes ripped across his home state of Tennessee, thereby ensuring the continuance of the bill’s inbred sterility.

If the College Opportunity and Affordability Act is to succeed in its underlying purpose, it is essential that its assistance not be diluted by ineffectual and heavy-handed mandates. Of course, the prevention of illegal downloading is a necessary pursuit, but its execution is hardly the responsibility of colleges and universities. Both of the bill’s long-run objectives requires legislation of their own, none of which should allow any particular group to be overburdened by misapplied demands. While illegal downloading is clearly unprincipled and deserving of adequate legal measure, to place so much of the burden squarely on academic shoulders is the worst sort of political misstep.