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.

J.D. Ross, communications director for Syracuse’s iSchool, said the decision to join popular websites in the daylong protest blackouts was made over the weekend. iSchool students are already familiar with copyright infringement issues, Ross said, but perhaps unfamiliar with how SOPA would affect their everyday internet experience.

“We’re coming at it not from a political standpoint but from an awareness standpoint,” he said, adding that the school didn’t go completely “dark” for 24 hours because students just returned to campus for the spring semester. “We wanted to do so in a way that came across as informational and promoting awareness of the legislation. … A lot of students are finding out who their [Congressional] representatives are for the first time today.”

Technology heavyweights like Google and Yahoo! have led the growing public outcry against SOPA, portraying the legislation as a government attack on internet freedom while the entertainment industry calls SOPA a necessary step in fighting unauthorized sharing of copyrighted material on the web.

Pressure from Silicon Valley’s largest technology companies and activists from nearly every political stripe has had an impact on the anti-piracy legislation that once appeared that it would breeze through both chambers of Congress.

Over the weekend, the Obama administration reacted to two online petitions, saying it “will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk or undermines the dynamic, innovative global internet.”

At the same time, the administration called on all sides to “pass sound legislation this year that provides prosecutors and rights holders new legal tools to combat online piracy originating beyond U.S. borders.”

And just hours after the 24-hour blackout started, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) withdrew his name from a long list of cosponsors for the anti-piracy legislation. Rubio’s change of heart was touted as a major victory for activists since the first-term senator was one of the first to sign onto the SOPA/PIPA legislation when it was introduced by Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) last spring.

“Earlier this year, this bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously and without controversy,” Rubio said in a statement posted to his official Facebook page. “Since then, we’ve heard legitimate concerns about the impact the bill could have on access to the internet and about a potentially unreasonable expansion of the federal government’s power to impact the internet. Congress should listen and avoid rushing through a bill that could have many unintended consequences.”

Chris Peterson, an admissions counselor at MIT, wrote in a university blog post clarifying MIT’s stance on SOPA and how the law would destroy popular websites like Flickr and Vimeo, which rely on user-generated content.

The law would also threaten social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, where original content is constantly reposted by other users.

“The only reason a site like YouTube, or Wikipedia, or the MITAdmissions Wiki can function is because they are protected from copyright lawsuits as long as they respond to requests for takedown by copyright holders,” Peterson wrote. “Not only will SOPA/PIPA remove this protection, but they will create another level of intermediary liability for anyone who links to a site which contains infringing content.”

MIT’s Admissions blog, which is frequently updated with student posts meant to give prospective students a better idea of life on MIT’s campus, would not be able to function if SOPA is passed by the House and Senate, Peterson wrote.

“We could not ever allow them to post a picture or excerpt or class note unless we cleared with MIT’s lawyers that it did not violate someone’s copyright, somewhere, somehow,” he wrote. “The ideals threatened by these bills strike at the heart of everything MIT stands for, and what we try to do here on the blogs every day.”

Syracuse officials said there was very little student angst about their favorite online encyclopedia going dark for a day, but Ross pointed out that the Wikipedia blackout was on the second days of the spring semester – not exactly academic crunch time.

“They’re probably not scrambling to get things done right now, but if it was a different time, might be another reaction,” he said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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