Wednesday, January 18th, 2012 is the day the Internet protested H.R 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act from the House of Representatives and Protect IP s.968 in the Senate (disclosure, the author of this article was a participant in the protest). These laws threatened to raise college costs for students and stifle freedom of expression. The protest changed these laws from a sure thing, to politically toxic.
The most troubling provisions for students were in section 101(21A) of SOPA and section 2(2) in PIPA. These required that internet service providers block websites hosting content accused of copyright infringement. St. Petersburg College, and our public library system would be considered Internet Service Providers just like Verizon or Brighthouse.
Both fall under the definition of U.S. Code title 17, section 512(k). Title 17 is where U.S. copyright law is located. Section 512(k) defines an internet service provider as “an entity offering the transmission, routing or providing of connection for digital online communications, between or among points specified by a user, of material of the user’s choosing, without modification to content of the material as sent or received.” In English, that means if the organization provides access to the internet, they have to abide by SOPA and PIPA. These are called unfunded mandates.
The school is forced to comply, but is provided no funding by the government to meet the requirements of the law. The school would have to find money to pay for the expense of adding new software and expertise to the IT department. This could have resulted in higher tuition. Many for-profit institutions such as web registrars were exempted from this provision.
While SOPA was in mark up, the part of the legislative process when amendments are added to a bill, Jared Polis (D-CO) tried to pass an amendment to exempt non-profits, colleges and universities from this requirement. His colleagues felt that Polis’ amendment provided college students with a license to steal. Representative Watt (D-NC) said “if they are stealing my property, they should not be allowed to do it . . . it doesn’t matter if they’re a university, a nonprofit, or whoever.” This approach to intellectual property which looks at every party as a potential thief led to activism.
In a blog post dated 10 January 2012 web aggregator Reddit.com announced that they would bring down their site for 12 hours on the eighteenth just before the Senate vote on PIPA. They were followed by web zine Boing Boing, and Mojang, the developers of Minecraft. On the fourteenth, President Obama made a blog post opposing the bills. Wikipedia announced that they would join the strike the day before the protest. Google.com added a doodle linking to a petition opposing SOPA and PIPA on the eighteenth. At the end of the day that petition had 7,000,000 signatures according to Google. Tiffany Cheng of FightfortheFuture.com announced that over 4,000,000 emails were sent to Congress and more than 115,000 websites participated in the protest. According to Twitter.com there were more than 2,000,000 tweets with the hashtag SOPA.
Propublica.org’s web application SOPA Opera tracked support for this legislation. SOPA and PIPA went from having almost no opposition in Congress in November to 80 supporters and 31 opponents on January 18th. By the day after the web protest the count stood at 65 supporters, 101 opponents. By the time Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Judiciary Chairperson Lamar Smith (R-TX) postponed the bills indefinitely the count stood at 55 supporters, 205 opponents. SOPA and PIPA are unlikely to return in an election year, and that is good news for students.