Matter, Energy, and Life of Michael A. Castello.

Student Government Meets Federal Government


A guest blog from Michael A. Castello, Assistant Speaker of the Senate at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

This past Friday I had the unique opportunity to take a trip to Washington, D.C. with several members of EDUCAUSE, a higher education organization dedicated to the “intelligent use of information technology.” Representing UMBC students and the UMBC Student Government along with SGA President Jay Lagorio, we presented a student perspective on a very significant issue: sharing of copyrighted materials on college and university campuses. More specifically, we were advocating against Section 494(a)(2) from H.R. 4137, the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007:

Some of the concerns we raised with this language was the feasibility of implementing such a plan given the limited resources available to institutions like UMBC, which has been feeling the effects of Maryland’s budget crunch for some time now. While the easiest method would be to globally block Peer-to-Peer (P2P) applications, doing so would eliminate the many legitimate uses of file sharing technology.

Another section included in this bill suggests that higher education institutions support “legal alternatives” to P2P file sharing. Many of these alternatives have been widely adopted by universities at great investment, only to see disappointing adoption. Unfortunately, even if only a few students use a service like Ruckus, UMBC’s current effort, the cost to the university is ultimately paid by all students. UMBC Vice President for Information Technology and EDUCAUSE member Jack Suess pointed out that a similar service had been implemented not long ago using a service provided by CDigix, only to have the company discontinue the service on the eve of its implementation on our campus.

I pointed out that the students have certain requirements when it comes to digital content, and the most successful delivery system for this content do not require any additional investment from the higher education community. Indeed, all of higher education would be willing to work closely with the entertainment industry to develop a delivery system that students would want to adopt. This is different from the current language which seems to place the burden for finding such a system on higher education alone.

During our afternoon, we had scheduled meetings with legislative representatives for Representative Sarbanes, Leader Hoyer, and Representative Cummings. Our day began in Sarbanes’ office, where the five of us had an involved discussion with his legislative counsel Delicia Reynolds. She took notes on our concerns and offered some counterpoints based on the language in the bill. Delicia made it clear that the intent she had been hearing from other representatives was not to force higher education to do something, but rather to appease concerned interests by issuing a strong recommendation. We pointed out that industry representatives have already begun promoting this legislation as a requirement rather than a recommendation, suggesting instead that the misinterpreted language be removed entirely or explicitly clarified. Of the three meetings, I definitely felt the best upon leaving this one. It was clear that we had been listened to and that our concerns would at least be considered further than the meeting itself.

In Hoyer’s office, our scheduled legislative representative was unable to attend the meeting, so we met with legislative correspondent Fallon Shields. She listened to our concerns but didn’t take any notes, instead promising to ensure that the packet of information supplied by the EDUCAUSE representatives got into the appropriate hands. This situation was a little less satisfying for me when compared to the experience in Sarbanes’ office, as much responsibility rests on Fallon to deliver the information we presented. One can only hope that if nothing else, our presence related to the issue will have been noted so that later, in future issues, it is clear that there are groups of constituents expressing concern over these legislative nods to the entertainment industry.

Our final meeting was with Danielle Grote, legislative assistant for Cummings. All three of us from UMBC, Jack, Jay, and myself, are from Cummings’ legislative district and so are his direct constituents. Unfortunately for our influence level, he ran unopposed in the past election. Perhaps because it was nearing the end of the day, or perhaps because she had another meeting to attend as soon as ours completed, Danielle seemed a bit tired during our meeting. While she did take some notes, she also pointed us back to the language of the bill several times to remind us that this was supposed to be a “strong recommendation” as opposed to a requirement. It was unclear to me whether she understood the concern we had with that level of ambiguity – if something is unclear now, what is preventing it from being implemented in a way the authors did not intended, especially under the strong pressures the entertainment industry will indubitably be providing?

As this was my first experience presenting issues to Congress, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. All in all, I think it was a successful experience and that the aides for the three representatives did attempt to listen to us. I am concerned, however, that the education of the aides reflects the best of the knowledge of their respective superiors. This means there is still a gross lack of information among legislators about the nuances of Digital Age technology, a hole that allows strong lobbyists with a certain angle on how this technology should be used to gain a strong foothold on Capitol Hill. While at this time I am unsure of how to go about it, I am certain that there is a major need to ensure that the legislative staff are armed with the appropriate information to be able to make clear decisions in these matters.

I think our trip was able to make an impact. Although it may not have been enough to overturn this particular language, a process has been started that is increasing our awareness on Capitol Hill and sending the message that constituents are serious about making their voices heard in regards to digital issues.

Originally published December 18, 2007 on DigitalFreedom.org.

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