SOPA, PIPA and their Effect on the Intersection of Education and the Internet

by Hap Aziz

There is a lot of buzz right now about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA: H.R. 3261) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA: S. 968) that are making their way through the legislative process, and tomorrow morning (about 7:45 am Eastern time) I will be on Fox 35 News in Orlando to discuss the implications in general. Congress will pick up the debate again when it reconvenes in 2012; in the meantime, this is a good opportunity to examine what effects the legislation may have on Internet use in education. The potential impact for educators is great, as the bills if passed into law would deal directly with the use and distribution of copyrighted material over websites–including institutional and faculty run sites.

First of all, what are the two bills? The first one originated from the Senate, which is PIPA, and it’s intent is to give the U.S. government and content copyright holders more legal tools to help prevent access to “rogue websites dedicated to infringing or counterfeit goods,” especially those sites registered and operating outside of the country. It defines infringement as the distribution of illegal copies, counterfeit goods, or anti-DRM technology (which can be used to circumvent copyright protections). SOPA is very similar in its intent, but it is much broader in terms of implementation and consequences; SOPA can additionally target companies that provide Internet connectivity and force the rerouting of what is currently secure traffic between users and websites.

The most vocal supporters of SOPA/PIPA have been the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, while vocal opponents include companies that are based on Internet activity, including Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and eBay. It’s interesting to note that over the past two years, the supporters have outspent the opponents by about 10-to-1 in terms of lobbying dollars in front of Congress.

While researching information for this blog entry, I came across quite a few video clips that explain the bills and their potential ramifications, and perhaps it is significant that nearly all the clips that are out there are produced by opponents or present the case that passage of the legislation would have an overall detrimental effect. The following clip appears to offer a fairly straightforward interpretation of the bills (it was produced before SOPA was introduced, but there is supplemental narration at the end directed at some of the SOPA consideration. It is worth viewing to gain some contextual understanding of the issue.

PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

What would passage of SOPA/PIPA mean to the education community? Clearly, modern teaching and learning environments make extensive use of web-based content from a variety of sources and through a variety channels. While much of the content is licensed from publishers with appropriate accommodations for academic uses, a good deal of content may reside on websites that do not have the proper copyright permissions for every image, audio, or video clip to which they provide access. These sites are vulnerable to a forced shut-down order issued by the U.S. Attorney General’s office, and the Internet Service Provider (ISP) hosting the offending website would have to comply within five days.

Quite a few educators associated with projects such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, the Internet Archive, Creative Commons, Harvard University, and Stanford University, for example, are concerned about the legislation, and they have been involved in pointing out how SOPA/PIPA could adversely effect technology innovation in the teaching and learning environment. In a signed letter to Chairman Lamar Smith and Ranking Member John Conyers of the House Committee on the Judiciary, the interested parties state:

These bills would undermine this framework and chill the creation of educational content. Sites that host or use user-generated content could be required to monitor their site for infringing material, and could potentially have their domain name blocked by the government if content owners thought that infringement was occurring on that site. This represents an entirely new legal power given to content owners to control the flow of content online and to shape the very foundation of the Internet. Indeed, it could lead to entire sites becoming unavailable due to the behavior of a tiny minority of confused or malicious users.

These concerns are significant, and clearly they are not merely the expressions of uninformed and unsubstantiated fears (for the full copy of the letter, click here). There are many opponents of SOPA/PIPA representing both the education and commercial spaces, and these people standing against passage have been very vocal in their opposition. We do not have much longer to wait until 2012 to see whether Congress is listening, and how it will weigh out the arguments pro and con.


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Filed under colleges and universities, Congress, copyright, education, Internet, technology, U.S. government

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