On the University of Maryland campus in College Park this month, senior Pavel Beresnev was a hunted man.
Threats and hate mail came his way. Fliers were posted in dining halls and traded online listing his address, phone number, e-mail address and Instant Messenger screen name, along with a clear message: "Can't get on Direct Connect? Say thanks to Pavel Leonidovich Beresnev."
Students hoping to download a catchy song they heard on the way to campus were caught by surprise earlier this month when their link to Direct Connect, a popular online file-sharing program, was suddenly shut down. More alarming was the explanation they heard for why that had happened: Beresnev, one of their own, had turned them in for violating copyright laws.
Students were shocked -- and angry. Why would Beresnev -- who himself was trading a huge number of files daily on Direct Connect, a program that allows users to easily share everything from the latest music to class notes -- alert authorities ready to prosecute students for downloading copyrighted material?
The truth is, he didn't.
Beresnev would not comment directly for this article. But he told friends that, as a prank, he'd sent out a fake e-mail indicating he'd tipped off authorities at the Recording Industry Association of America, which offers up to $10,000 for such information. Spooked by the e-mail, the student who had been operating the College Park Direct Connect site shut it down.
In the days since the mid-February incident, the phony tipster has recanted, and Direct Connect is up and running again on campus. But the reaction to the hoax reveals just how strongly students feel about their ability to download material off the Internet -- and the fears they have about the increasingly tough stance being taken both by copyright holders and colleges and universities.
"It's just becoming too dangerous -- people are getting scared," said Adam Kidwell, a junior meteorology major from Bethesda who was recently served with a warning from campus officials for obtaining copyrighted software online. "I thought everybody else was doing it, it's not that big of a deal. But when the [Direct Connect] network went down, that's when I got cautious. It made me think twice about what I'm going to be doing on my computer."
Protection is limited
Less than a week before the Direct Connect shutdown, university Provost William W. Destler and Chief Information Officer Mark Henderson had sent an e-mail to all Maryland students, staff and faculty warning of the increasing risks associated with file-sharing.
Back in December, administrators had installed software on university computer systems to restrict how many of the most commonly swapped file types could be accessed, something Destler says has shown "remarkable results" in a short period of time.
"What we want to do is communicate with students the risk they put themselves in with this sort of file downloading, and make it as difficult as possible to [do that]," he said.
The university does not prowl the Internet in search of file swappers; instead, an office it has set up called Project NEThics fields complaints from movie, music and software companies and passes along warnings to offenders. If those offenders don't delete illicit files by the next day, they risk having their access to the school's network cut off.
Once a copyright holder decides to pursue legal action, though, the university will not protect the student, Destler said.
"Once you begin to assume any responsibility like that, you're responsible for assuring [that] the behavior of all students is appropriate, and we simply can't do that," he said.
Project NEThics, which operates out of the university's Office of Information Technology, follows up every complaint, and no student has faced legal action yet. But the Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the music industry, sent a message to college students nationwide last April when it sued four of them for operating private computer networks that are used to swap popular music files.
The students -- from Princeton, Rensselaer and Michigan Tech -- were alleged to be offering users access to between 27,000 and 1 million copyrighted songs. The RIAA sought judgments of $150,000 per song, which could have equaled $150 billion in penalties for the worst offender. All the defendants settled their cases, however, paying between $12,000 and $17,000 in fines.
Over the past two months, the RIAA has filed more than 1,000 lawsuits against anonymous "John Doe" defendants -- alleged violators identified only by their IP (Internet Protocol) addresses. A judge then orders those users' Internet service providers to turn over their names to the RIAA. Among those that the organization has prosecuted are a 12-year-old girl and a grandmother.
"No matter whether it's using an intra-school connection or a peer-to-peer network, file sharers should understand that they're not anonymous," RIAA spokesman Jonathan Lamy said from his office in Washington. "When you are sharing music files with thousands or millions of other people on a public network, you can be identified."
As a result, some schools are moving away from education and prevention and turning to legal alternatives -- such as Napster II, a file-sharing site which provides free access to a database of 500,000 songs that can be downloaded for 99 cents each. Penn State was the first to sign on to the service last fall; the University of Rochester followed this month. Provost Destler said College Park has set up a task force to look into the benefits of joining such a program.
Junior Joe Barrett, though, maintains the legitimacy of Direct Connect, online software that be downloaded to allow people with similar interests to group themselves into so-called "hubs," where they can search other users' files and transfer data at very fast speeds.
It was Barrett's Direct Connect hub that was serving the College Park community when Beresnev's hoax caused him to shut it down. On the hub, users traded songs and movies, but also class notes and digital pictures, and had access to a chat room.
"Sharing files is what makes the community so great. People come to the hub to catch up on an episode of their favorite show that they couldn't be home for," Barrett wrote in a posting on an online message board. "Interest groups such as the RIAA would have file-sharing stop altogether, but we urge people to learn which of their files are copywritten, and make their best effort to share those which are not."
New hubs launched
Despite all the clamor and angry threats -- which caused Beresnev to file an assault complaint with university police -- Direct Connect is now back up and running on campus. At least three students have launched new hubs; one had attracted nearly 650 users in just a few days. Beresnev himself appears to be among the new users.
Amy Ginther, a policy and development coordinator for Project NEThics, says the Direct Connect program itself is not in violation of any campus policies.
"That a technology or software mechanism is operating on campus isn't significant unless it is violating a policy," she said.
Oxen Wexler, a junior from Hyattsville, believes file-sharing will continue, but that students need to be more careful.
"I don't think it's going to affect more regular, avid users of file-sharing software as much, but I think it is more than just a blip on the radar screen," Wexler said.
The RIAA's Lamy acknowledges as much.
"It's not a transition that's going to occur overnight, but we're making real progress."