USACM Cautions Against Filtering

By Cameron
April 15, 2008

Today USACM released a letter (full text below) to Senate and House of Representatives education leaders cautioning against legislation that would promote or require universities to use filters to deal with copyright infringement on their networks. Our position is that filtering technologies are ineffective and costly in the long run because they can be foiled by technology, create new security vulnerabilities, and undermine fair use rights and research on new technologies.

The House and Senate have been busy working to resolve differences in a piece of legislation known as the Higher Education Act, which is the centerpiece of Federal higher education policy. Always important to the university system, the legislation drew the attention of the technology community last summer when Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) introduced an amendment that would have required universities to install “technology-based deterrents” to curb infringement over their networks — i.e. filters. This proposal was heavily watered down to a requirement to educate students that unauthorized downloading of copyrighted works is illegal. However, the House of Representatives’ version included a proposal that would authorize grant funding for filters and require universities to develop a plan for using “technology-based deterrents”.

While copyright infringement is a serious issue, USACM believes that universities are in the best position to determine how to deal with infringement of copyrighted works on their networks, and filters are ineffective solution. The full letter can be downloaded, and below is the body of the text.

Dear Members of Congress,

As members of the U.S. Public Policy Committee for the Association for Computing Machinery, we wish to express our organizations concern about proposals that would encourage or require technology-based filtering of Internet traffic by universities.

Many members of our committee are copyright holders, and we agree that protecting the integrity of copyright is an important public policy goal. However, we wish to inform you about facts regarding filtering technologies — based on our scientific and technology expertise — that Congress should consider carefully during its deliberations.

First, there are known counters to filtering technology. For example, motivated content thieves can encrypt their Internet traffic or use other obfuscation methods to bypass filters that are looking for some specific known signature of the copyrighted work. Obfuscation techniques — such as introducing noise to packets — create an inevitable, and expensive, arms race of measure and counter-measure between filters and infringers. It can be proven mathematically that this race will never be won by the side seeking to filter.

Encryption is an even more effective countermeasure as strong encryption of traffic will render filtering technology useless. When traffic is encrypted it becomes impossible for any technology to distinguish infringing traffic from non-infringing traffic, or even from routine encrypted traffic such as e-commerce transactions or corporate applications such as virtual private network traffic. Encryption is a widely available technology and one that could be readily incorporated into peer-to-peer applications.

Second, because filtering technologies depend on seeing all traffic flowing over a network they raise significant new security risks. An attacker (external or internal to the filtering organization) can potentially use this infrastructure to gain the same look into the network traffic that the filter uses. This access would be very valuable for attackers trying to steal identities, personal or financial information or gain illicit access to valuable research.

Finally, filters can undermine existing freedoms, rights and research. Even the best filters cannot determine what is a fair use of a copyrighted work. A policy requiring or encouraging filtering without having a process to resolve fair use claims would undermine existing, long-established rights as overly aggressive filters blocked otherwise legal activities. Having such a process is not possible if the intention is to block content in real time.

Further, false positives — blocking content that is in the public-domain because it happens to share a signature of the copyrighted work — could have a significant negative impact on distribution of educational material at universities. False positives may also hinder legitimate academic research endeavors that rely upon an open and flexible Internet as a platform for experimentation and innovation. Overly broad filters might interfere with legitimate research on peer-to-peer networks, as well as grid or cloud computing efforts.

Infringement of copyrighted works on university networks is a serious issue. However, a Federal policy that promotes or requires filtering will indirectly add to the costs of education and university research, introduce new security and privacy issues, degrade existing rights under copyright, and have little or no lasting impact on infringement of copyrighted works.

Universities that are not already seeking solutions should be encouraged to take reasonable steps to address the issue, and there are a number of different techniques that are being used. Student education and sanctions for offenses are basic administrative actions. Traffic shaping and throttling of bandwidth are two examples of other technical solutions. Some universities have put filters on their networks, and while we believe filtering is short-sighted and will only have limited impacts on infringement, our view is that universities are in the best position to determine how to address infringement.

Thank you for considering our perspective on this issue. Should you have any questions or comments, please contact Cameron Wilson, Director of Public Policy for ACM at (202) 659-9712.