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Moral boundaries hazy for Internet generation

Downloading music, data from Web widespread

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — In the rough and tumble of the student union here at Pennsylvania State University, the moral code is purely pragmatic.

Thou shalt not smoke — it will kill you.

Thou shalt not lift a term paper off the Internet — it will get you kicked out.

Thou shalt not use a fake ID — it will get you arrested.

But when it comes to downloading music or movies off the Internet, students here compare it with underage drinking: illegal, but not immoral. Like alcohol and parties, the Internet is easily accessible. Why not download, or drink, when "everyone" does it?

This occasionally contradictory set of commandments has helped make people between the ages of 18 and 29, and college students in particular, the biggest downloaders of Internet music.

"It's not something you feel guilty about doing," said Dan Langlitz, 20, a junior here. "You don't get the feeling it's illegal because it's so easy." He held an MP3 player in his hand. "They sell these things, the sites are there. Why is it illegal?"

Students say they have had the Internet for as long as they can remember, and have grown up thinking of it as theirs for the taking.

The array of services available to them on campus has only encouraged that sense.

Penn State recently made the student center, known as the HUB, entirely wireless, so students do not even have to dial up to get on the Internet. In comfortable armchairs, they sit clicking on Google searches, their ears attached to iPods, cell phones a hand away. A swipe of a student ID gets them three free newspapers. They do not need cash — only a swipe card, the cost included in their student fees — to buy anything from a caramel latte to tamale pie at an abundance of fast-food counters. There is a bank branch and a travel agency, and a daily activities board lists a NASCAR simulator as well as rumba lessons.

Many courses put all materials — textbook excerpts, articles, syllabuses — online. Residence halls offer faster broadband access, which studies say makes people more likely to download.

"It kind of spoils us, in a sense, because you get used to it," said Jill Wilson, 20, a sophomore.

The ease of going online has shaped not only attitudes about downloading, but cheating as well, blurring the lines between right and wrong so much that many colleges now require orientation courses that give students specific examples of what plagiarism looks like. Students generally know not to buy a paper off the Internet, but many think it is OK to pull a paragraph or two, as long as they change a few words.

"Before, when you had to go into the library and at least type it in to your paper, you were pretty conscious about what you were doing," said Janis Jacobs, vice provost for undergraduate education here. "That means we do have to educate students about what is OK. It's the same whether you're talking about plagiarizing a phrase from a book or article or downloading music — it all seems free to them."

Last year and again last week, the university sent out an e-mail message reminding students that downloading copyrighted music was illegal, and pleading with them to "resist the urge" to download. It also warned students that it had begun monitoring how much information students are downloading, and that they could lose their Internet access if their weekly use exceeded a limit administrators describe as equivalent to tens of thousands of e-mail messages sent.

This year, all students had to take an online tutorial before receiving access to their e-mail accounts, acknowledging that they had read and agreed to university policy prohibiting the downloading of copyrighted material.

At the same time, realizing the difficulties of stopping downloading, Penn State's president, Graham B. Spanier, is hoping to try out a program this spring where the university would pay for the rights to music and then allow students to download at will.

To students, the crackdown seemed like a sudden reversal.

"Up until recently, we were not told it was wrong," said Kristin Ebert, 19. "We think if it's available, you can use it. It's another resource."

When representatives from the technology services department told students about the bandwidth monitoring, Ebert said, they outlined the reasonable limits in terms of movies downloaded. "They weren't encouraging it, but they used it as a frame of reference," she said. "They were aware, but they weren't doing anything to correct it."

Penn State has taken a harder line than most campuses. But whether here or elsewhere, students do not seem to be grasping the moral message.

According to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project last spring, 56 percent of college students download music, compared with about 25 percent of nonstudents, and those students are more likely than downloaders in general — 80 percent to 67 percent — to say they do not care that the music is copyrighted when they download it. (The study came before recent lawsuits by the recording industry against 261 people it says have shared copyrighted music over the Internet. But researchers defend the report's relevancy, saying it came after the industry had shut down Napster and begun a massive advertising campaign against downloading.)

Similarly, studies by the Center for Academic Integrity show a decline in traditional peering-over-someone's-shoulder cheating, but a steady rise in Internet plagiarism between 1999 and 2003.

Here, the warnings against plagiarism seem to have sunk in better than those about downloading. But even some of the lessons about plagiarism came as a surprise to students who had freely used the Internet in high school.

"When I came in, I didn't expect any of this to be plagiarism," said Maria Sansone, 22, a senior. "The idea you had to cite what you took off the Internet was new. I think a lot of people don't know where to draw the line."

Elizabeth Kiss, director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, said she suspected that older generations were not more ethical, just less techno-savvy. "I don't think we've done a very good job of making the argument that it's different if it's copyrighted," she said.

Ann Morrissey, 19, confesses that she hasn't even listened to all the songs she has downloaded. "I have 400 songs, I listen to 20," she said. "I don't know why," she added, then laughed, and answered herself: "You can, and it's cool to have them."

She, like others, does not see the harm done and remains suspicious of the recording industry. "How are you going to make downloading illegal when you can still smoke legally and give yourself lung cancer?" Morrissey asked. "There are a lot worse issues you could focus on."

The university has sent warnings about exceeding bandwidth to a couple hundred students. But on a campus with 42,000 students, punishment seems remote to many.

"No one close to home has gotten in trouble," said Andrew Ricken, a junior.

A common analogy — downloading music is like stealing a CD — does not sway students. Many argue that they are spending more money on music.

"I never went out and bought CDs, now I go to concerts, because I know what kind of music people play," said Kristen Lipski, 20. "If you can get your music out to a big group of people to listen to, they'll go to your CD, go to your concert, spend money on posters. It's really expensive, especially for college students, to buy the whole CD."

Langlitz was on his way to a concert downtown by Taking Back Sunday — a band he said he would never have heard without downloading. "A lot of the bands I know about aren't that well-known," he said. "Before I saw their CDs, I had them in my computer."

These are the same sets of Robin Hood arguments adults make. But while adults who remember the days of LPs seem willing to pay 99 cents a song, students see any transition from free as a denial of basic right.

"A dollar a song is just not worth it," said Edwin Shaw, a 20-year-old junior walking across campus with his MP3 player and trying to confirm which night the Red Hot Chili Peppers were playing on campus.

At best, the new warnings seemed to have some students negotiating new rules.

At a table with friends, John Dixon was debating whether he would be caught if he only traded songs with his roommates on their local area network, off campus. Just to be safe, he's sticking mostly to copying music from CDs. He is not sharing his files — not because he sees it as illegal, but because he hears the record industry is going mainly after sharers, not downloaders.

"The risk is higher," he said.

Wilson, too, is not sharing, though she has continued downloading.

"That doesn't make it right," she said. "But it's not that big a deal, right?"