Colleges join Wikipedia in SOPA blackout protests

A key U.S. senator withdrew his support for SOPA Jan. 18.

Syracuse University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) joined several of the web’s most visited sites, including Wikipedia, in a partial blackout to speak out against pending anti-piracy legislation that critics say could curtail internet freedom in the U.S.

Visitors to the homepages of MIT’s admissions office and Syracuse University’s School of Information – known as the iSchool – Jan. 18 were confronted with information about the House of Representative’s Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and the Senate’s PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), both of which have received bipartisan support as a way to curb online piracy.

Many in higher education have said in recent weeks that SOPA could have a long lasting impact on college and university websites. If those sites are suspected of being complicit in sharing copyrighted information, the government would have legal authority to shut down the site.

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Such a move would hit online students hardest, educators said, because they often log into vital course information through the school’s official web portal. An MIT admissions official said the university would have to shut down entire portions of its website if SOPA becomes law.

Syracuse’s iSchool directed visitors to several links about the potential dangers of SOPA and PIPA, saying in a blog post that the laws “would allow copyright holders to create blacklists of sites they feel are infringing their content without any legal oversight.”

Visitors to MIT’s admissions site were met with a black screen and two links: One to contact Congressional representatives and one to find out more about SOPA.

Both the MIT and Syracuse sites were not entirely blacked out like online encyclopedia Wikipedia or social network Reddit. Visitors could click through the SOPA warnings and move onto the normal homepages.

“I think it’s a very interesting lesson and perhaps a tough lesson for students,” Jill Hurst-Wahl, assistant professor of practice at the iSchool and director of the library and information science program, said of the various internet protest blackouts. “It’s as if your favorite grocery store suddenly closed with no prior warning. To realize what you’re missing without that immediacy, you don’t always get that on the internet.”

“But if it starts conversations [about SOPA] and changes the conversation in Washington, then this has been a worthwhile day,” Hurst-Wahl added.

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