Online piracy bill could be major burden for colleges

SOPA has not yet been voted on in Congress.

Campus librarians and IT staffers could be legally required to comb through digital traffic for signs of copyright violations if Congress passes online piracy legislation that has met stiff opposition from higher-education groups that see the law as broad censoring of the internet.

The House of Representative’s Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and the Senate’s PROTECT IP Act, backed by the influential entertainment industry as a way to crack down on web-based copyright violations, could impose a lasting workload on college and university officials charged with tracking online piracy on their school’s network.

SOPA, introduced in October by a bipartisan group of legislators, would let the U.S. Department of Justice and copyright holders secure court orders against websites accused of contributing to internet copyright infringement.

Sites found guilty of participating in online piracy under SOPA could be removed from search engines like Google and barred from processing credit card payments, among other restrictions that would make them largely unavailable to the public.

Although SOPA targets foreign online piracy, many in higher education said a student or faculty member using a campus network to connect to an overseas piracy site would require the school to take action.

Librarians, for instance, would have to publicize the new restrictions and consequences of SOPA while handling government and copyright holder claims of online privacy committed by campus community members.

“This has really struck people hard in education,” said Bryan Alexander, a senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, a nonprofit group of 150 colleges and universities. “Librarians are the experts [in copyright violation], so it means more work for them, which is bad during a time of cutting budgets and reducing resources in higher education.”

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, a SOPA sponsor who has defended the law against critics, said the bill was a “commitment toward ensuring that law enforcement and job creators have the necessary tools to protect American intellectual property from counterfeiting and piracy.”

The powerful entertainment industry has had the upper hand on educators in legislative discussions of monitoring the internet, Alexander said. Colleges’ disparate voices don’t help matters for higher education.

“Historically, opposition from education has had very little effect … and quite frankly, we’re outgunned,” he said. “Hollywood has enormous resources, and they have the capacity to unite behind one stance. We can’t do that in higher ed. We don’t speak with one voice.”

EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit educational technology group, supported parts of SOPA in a Nov. 22 letter to Congress but said the legislation was too broad and threatened to impose permanent hardship on campus ed-tech leaders.

“The higher-education community believes that websites whose main purpose and activity is to enable and promote infringement should be targeted aggressively by the content owners in whose interest it is to bring civil actions,” the EDUCAUSE letter said. “Unfortunately, although its goals are appropriate, SOPA goes beyond these reasonable, pragmatic mechanisms for addressing infringement by casting its net more widely.”

The legislation would bring “new risks” to “mainstream websites” hosted by colleges and universities, while forcing the schools to deal with an onslaught of lawsuits and legal complaints from copyright holders who believe their content has been illegally obtained.

Campuses would be exposed “to harassment, to unwarranted and expensive litigation, and to new forms of liability,” the letter said. “In short, in the name of stopping infringement, SOPA can also inhibit or stop a far wider range of perfectly legitimate activity.”

With the goal of sharing online content between institutions, educational technology could be particularly vulnerable to claims of violating SOPA if the law is passed, said Phil Hill, an ed-tech consultant and analyst who blogs for e-Literate, a site that tracks technology use in higher education.

Hill pointed to a recent controversy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where the school’s “swikis”—sites used by students for coursework—were shut down after a single complaint from a student who said his name was included on a course site.

“As drafted, SOPA could have a major impact on institutions using any form of educational technology to share content outside of a tightly-controlled, password-protected course site,” Hill said. “It is not hard to see how SOPA could create a minefield of potential legal actions, resulting in multiple institutions using their interpretations of the law … to stifle innovation, particularly around sharing of content and general collaboration.”

Web giants, including Google, AOL, Facebook, and Twitter, publicly aired opposition to SOPA in a Nov. 17 full-page advertisement in the New York Times. Google officials have told Congressional subcommittees in recent months that the federal government should not require internet service providers to shut off access to websites that violate the piracy law.

The technology companies wrote an open letter to members of Congress Nov. 15 that charged SOPA would dismantle a part of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act that guarantees “safe harbor” for ISPs that put forth good-faith efforts to remove any content that violates copyright laws.

“…We should not jeopardize a foundational structure that has worked for content owners and internet companies alike and provides certainty to innovators with new ideas for how people … share information lawfully online,” the letter said.

“We cannot support these bills as written and ask that you consider more targeted ways to combat foreign ‘rogue’ websites dedicated to copyright infringement and trademark counterfeiting, while preserving the innovation and dynamism that has made the internet such an important driver of economic growth and job creation,” the companies wrote.

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