Today's edition of the University of Maryland student newspaper, The Diamondback, contained an article1 by Stuart McPhail, a friend and fellow Philosophy major. He's a very bright guy, and also the President of the University of Maryland chapter of the ACLU on campus. His article today solicited feedback for a task force he's involved with, studying the issue of contracting with a service such as Napster, to provide a legal P2P music/media download service. There would be a cost to students, but it's not clear which students, and whether people could opt-out. The degree of University involvement, (and the cost to the University), is also unclear to me. I like Stuart, as he is very intelligent and articulate. I imagine he feels the same toward me. Here is what I wrote in reply to his article:

October 27, 2004

Subject: P2P: Problems 2 my Principles.

OK. Bad joke. But seriously:

The consumer in me loves to get free stuff, Stuart. I love it. I love getting as much as I can for as little money as I can. That's what a capitalist economy is all about. So if I have the opportunity to use University resources to legally obtain free stuff that has value to me, there's a (large) part of me that's all for it.

Here's the problem, though: There's a little voice inside me that nags, begging me to tell it what business the University has in brokering non-educational media for me. Even if all of the cost is passed on to students, I don't see the interest the University has in involving itself in providing me with entertainment. I guess this is the Libertarian in me speaking. I feel the same way about [funding] campus sports, concerts, and non-educational speakers.

Ah, yes . . . the Principle of Charity. OK, so I imagine the University could be said to have an interest in preventing itself from getting sued, since it might be accused of not doing enough to prevent students from using its resources in the illegal obtainment of music. So entering into a contractual agreement would obviate lawsuits, and solve the University's problem. But if I'm a University administrator, don't I see easier, cheaper solutions? Blocking the IP addresses of downloading services, maybe? Disclaimers that release the University from liability? How is a P2P service contract in keeping with the University's educational mission?

Principally, I can only support a P2P downloading service if it is the cheapest way for the University to avoid a lawsuit. But personally, selfishly, I hope that it happens, provided that: 1. as an off-campus student, I too can benefit, and 2. it will not cost anything for non-participating students.

(Parenthetically, this reminds me of the Bush "tax rebate" thing, and even, hey, the Prisoner's Dilemma, wherein we want what's best for us personally but might benefit more if we followed some other principles).

I would like to note that I would have nothing whatsoever against an independent group of students undertaking the entire project without any cost to or affiliation with the University itself. I know that the current task force is composed of student groups, but the proposal is that the project will be turned over to the University once a recommendation has been made, no?



1. The full text of McPhail's article can be found at: