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Colleges and websites react to anti-piracy bills

Published: February 3, 2012
Section: Featured


Wednesday, Jan. 18: College students everywhere experienced a collective panic attack. Hundreds of websites, including Wikipedia, Reddit, WordPress and BoingBoing, “blacked out” in protest of the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, and discontinued service for 24 hours in illustration of the censorship the site owners believe will come should SOPA pass both houses of Congress.

The since-shelved SOPA (and its counterparts PIPA and ACTA) are meant to target pirated content, and the sites that host it, like the notorious and recently terminated Megavideo. While it is widely agreed that protection of creative property is essential, the Stop Online Piracy Act, opponents say, comes rife with unintended—or unattested—consequences.

“Piracy is a problem, but there are better ways to deal with it than SOPA/PIPA/ACTA,” Sari Holt ’15 said. “Those just target innocent people and don’t actually accomplish anything. Lawmakers need to do more research and not just listen to the lobbyists.”

SOPA would theoretically allow the government to remove any website used “primarily as a means for engaging in, enabling or facilitating the activities” of copyright infringement, whether physical, counterfeit products, like knock-off handbags or creative copyright infringement, like movies and songs. Legislation has already been passed to protect copyrighted material on the Internet but, unlike the 1998 DMCA, which concentrates on removing infringing material from a website, SOPA is designed to target the website that hosts the content, as well as to remove websites that are affiliated with domains known for copyright infringement.

Numerous colleges protested the legislation, through blackouts of their own or with physical demonstrations, including Syracuse University, and others like MIT were extremely active in the opposition, as they felt they had a great deal to lose.

Much of universities’ online content would be put in legal jeopardy, sometimes because of blogs’ use of copyrighted material, whether conscious or not. If sites were suspected of being complicit in sharing copyrighted information, the government would have legal authority to shut down the site. Professor Jill Greenlee (POL) believes that, even if the bill did pass, universities would remain largely untouched. “How would it ever be beneficial for the Justice Department to take down university websites?” she asked.

It could, however, be a potential financial burden on universities, whose IT and Library departments would have to comb through their colleges’ digital traffic for signs of copyright violations. “This has really struck people hard in education,” said Bryan Alexander of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, a nonprofit group of 150 colleges and universities, including Brandeis, in an interview with eCampus News. “Librarians are the experts [in copyright violation], so it means more work for them,” he explained, “which is bad during a time of cutting budgets and reducing resources in higher education.” EDUCAUSE, the educational technology advocacy group, said the bills would limit Internet freedom on campus and expose schools to frivolous litigation.

It would also, according to Chris Peterson at MIT Admissions, potentially incur liability costs for online fledgling companies so high it would drive away investors, “strangling start-ups.”

Many believe that this could lead to an abuse of power by the authorities. Greenlee believes that even if SOPA or a similar bill were to pass, the likelihood that the authorities would enforce it at all, or at least very often, is low. The actual effects of SOPA would be far less than the intended because, she explained, it would be politically dangerous for the government to enforce it.

Though SOPA and PIPA have been effectively derailed, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), onto which many countries, including the United States, have already signed, may be equally inflammatory.

What ACTA does, according to European Parliament member Christian Engström, in a blog entry on Jan. 28, is remove the necessity for film or record companies to prove they lost purchases. “The film or record companies would no longer have to prove that they have actually lost the money. All they need to do is to multiply the number of songs with the price for one song to get the amount of damages measured by the suggested retail price.”