What Does SOPA Mean for Education?

In a firestorm of online protest, we’ve seen wikipedia blackout and Google gather names in order to help stop SOPA (Stopping Online Piracy Act) that is currently circulating through congress. I had a few discussions with students about the issue during the month of December, but just today, as many of you have probably seen on the news and/or Facebook, the resentment for the bill is reaching a peak in digital outlets across the online landscape.

I had further discussions with students today. Some knew what was going on, while others were hearing about the bill for the first time when I speaking to them. Personally, I understand what congress is trying to do; the problem is they are about two decades too late. At the core of the debate about SOPA there is the underlining need to redefine what copyright really means now in a world that exists with instant access, instant sharing, and open source products galore. My students are understandably upset at the prospect of the bill passing. You see, they’ve grown up in a digital playground where the reward has always been “if you can find it, you can keep it.” This attitude was starting to emerge when I was in high school. Napster was reaching a peak of popularity and helped begin a file sharing revolution; consequently, Napster also met its demise at the will of the courts, but it did pave the way for what we have today.

Most students see SOPA as a black and white issue. I played devil’s advocate by having them try to explain their positions. (Persuasion skills anyone?) The answers were mostly the same–you can’t censor the internet! I get it. They have a valid point if only because of one reason–time. You see the government has plenty of reason for implementing the bill to protect our floundering economy due in part at least to continuous piracy from the web, file sharing programs, and good ol’ hacking. The problem is their timing; never mind the issue with how vague the language in the bill is. My colleague used a great example this week in a different context, but it works here as well. Originally, the mountain that that houses Rock City in Tennessee should have been a part of Georgia; however, when the area was surveyed the markers were placed incorrectly giving Rock City to Georgia’s northern neighbor. No one said a thing for a hundred years. When Georgia did finally make a fuss, the courts basically said too bad, so sad. If you hadn’t complained for a hundred years after thousands have made the area home and identify themselves as Tennesseans, you can’t just have the land back. SOPA has the same issue. You’ve had over twenty years to pass an effort to control aspects of the internet, but instead the government has allowed a free sharing culture to emerge and solidify. Again, too bad, so sad. I, like my students, agree that it is a bit too late to try and censor the web now. The gray area emerges when you begin to discuss how SOPA could possibly protect young children from being exposed to pornography at an early age, and its pledge to protect the economic revenues of various media industries. You can argue all day long that those outlets already have too much money, but bear in mind that the money does trickle down to other economies over time.

My biggest concern though, is its effect on education. I’m already afraid of how much is censored in schools as is, and SOPA threatens to make a case for making access even harder. At the end of the day, SOPA can only be helpful if they tweak the language to specifically address copyright issues and takes a closer look at copyright’s definition in a new age. I believe in access for all and free speech, but also believe in protecting people’s intellectual rights as well.

If you’re not sure what SOPA is all about, take a look at the video below:

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

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