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Chris Peterson

Jan 18, 2012

Why We Blacked Out The Blogs

Posted in: Miscellaneous, Academics & Research

If you are visiting MITAdmissions.org today you may have noticed something strange about our website. Specifically the fact that it isn't there. At least not at first.

Instead, what's there is this:

 

So what's is this all about?

As Schoolhouse Rock taught us, Congress proposes bills which may, with sufficient support, become law. There is one such bill working its way through both houses of the Congress right now. It is a bad bill, which if enacted would become bad law: bad law with bad consequences for the entire Internet as we have come to know and love it.

H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), along with Senate Bill 968, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) are corresponding versions of a bill intended, according to its authors, to curb copyright infringement. It is the latest battle in a war which began when the Internet began an age of selling wine without bottles.

This post, however, is not about whether one should ally with Lessig or Valenti in the interminable copyfight. Nor is it a comment by me, or the admissions office, or MIT on the politics of these policies, nor on the proper configuration of copyright law. These blogs are not a partisan platform, and our office is not a partisan policy shop.

However, today MITAdmissions.org is joining a number of websites, including Wikipedia, reddit, Reports Without BordersGoogle, Mozilla, and many other in disrupting our service to protest SOPA and PIPA.

Here's why: 

reddit has a good breakdown of the bills and some of the worst they would do, including: 

The breadth of SOPA/PIPA is breathtaking. As Cory Doctorow writes:

SOPA would allow private entities to produce enemies lists of sites that offend them, and to give these lists to DNS providers, ISPs, payment processors, and ad brokers, who would then be required to remove the accused sites within five days. It also encourages payment processors to engage in self-censorship, by pre-emptively severing ties with firms they believe are likely to cause a complaint, before any such complaint is received.
 

As bad as this is, it gets worse: SOPA would also expand the definition of copyright infringement to include hosting a single link to a site that is alleged to contain infringing material. Thus, if an author’s blog, or a book discussion group, attracts a single post that contains a single link that goes to a site that someone accuses of copyright infringement, that site becomes one with the alleged infringer, and faces all the same sanctions—without any proof required, or due process.

You may have noticed that the first link I posted in this blog entry was a link to a version of the "I'm Just A Bill" video from Schoolhouse Rock. To be honest, I'm not sure what the copyright status of this video is. I certainly do not intend to infringe. I intend to educate. With good intent, I can post this because someone uploaded it to YouTube, which can host it because they have "safe harbor" protection. If there is a copyright claim filed against it, the video will be taken down, and oh well, my link will be dead. 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. This allows them to accept content from many people on the theory that the vast majority will be noninfringing and what does infringe will be removed.

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. In other words, not only could YouTube be blocked if that version of "I"m Just A Bill" is unauthorized, but so could MITAdmissions for linking to it. For that matter, we could be blocked if we linked to an entirely different and totally legitimate blogger video on YouTube if any other video on YouTube infringed copyright.

Additionally, SOPA/PIPA could crush freedom fighters around the world who rely on the Internet as an avenue of activism. According to the EFF, the bills allow the government to "go after more or less anyone who provides or offers a product or service that could be used to get around DNS blacklisting orders", including those legitimately used by freedom fighters (and funded by our government) to evade censorship by authoritarian and autocratic regimes.

The issues implicated by this overbroad regulation - access to information, freedom of speech, democratization of production, innovation and creation - are important, even central, to the Internet. And they are important and central to MIT too. That's why MIT Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, opposes SOPA/PIPA. So too the MIT Media Lab, in many ways the beating heart of innovation here at MIT. SOPA/PIPA could kill OpenCourseWare and MITx, two online initiatives created by MIT to educate the world. And, as I said before, they could quite easily kill these blogs.

I said before that the MITAdmissions blogs are not a partisan platform. And that is true. But I'd like to quote the Wikimedia Foundation's statement on why Wikipedia is being shut down in protest. Emphasis mine:

In making this decision, Wikipedians will be criticized for seeming to abandon neutrality to take a political position. That’s a real, legitimate issue. We want people to trust Wikipedia, not worry that it is trying to propagandize them.
 

But although Wikipedia’s articles are neutral, its existence is not. As Wikimedia Foundation board member Kat Walsh wrote on one of our mailing lists recently:

We depend on a legal infrastructure that makes it possible for us to operate. And we depend on a legal infrastructure that also allows other sites to host user-contributed material, both information and expression. For the most part, Wikimedia projects are organizing and summarizing and collecting the world’s knowledge. We’re putting it in context, and showing people how to make to sense of it.

But that knowledge has to be published somewhere for anyone to find and use it. Where it can be censored without due process, it hurts the speaker, the public, and Wikimedia. Where you can only speak if you have sufficient resources to fight legal challenges, or if your views are pre-approved by someone who does, the same narrow set of ideas already popular will continue to be all anyone has meaningful access to.

I think these same points apply to the MITAdmissions blogs too.

Here on the blogs we try to give you a sense of what life is like at MIT. And we do that by allowing a lot of students to write freely about their experiences. We could not do this in a world in which SOPA and PIPA were law. We could not allow our bloggers to link to any website because we could be liable if those websites contain infringing content. 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. MIT students could not go off and create great startups because no one would fund them. MIT can do what it does - MIT can be what it can be - because of a particular policy ecology in which it lives.

That ecology is endangered by both of these bills. So I hope you understand why we support the strike against SOPA/PIPA. 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.

In the spirit of access to information, please feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments below.

edit: 

You should also watch this video by Clay Shirky explaining SOPA: 

Comments (Closed after 30 days to reduce spam)

Bravo and thank you.

Posted by: Thomson Y. on January 18, 2012

I've never seen this put so eloquently. Thank you for supporting the blackouts!

Posted by: Carl Eadler on January 18, 2012

Spartans! Ready your breakfast and eat hearty... For tonight, we dine in hell!

Posted by: Aravind on January 18, 2012

And to think we are freaking out over the fact they are blocking just piratebay here in Holland... But that is the same thing, piratebay just links us, and now normal websites are going to have to suffer.

Posted by: Christel on January 18, 2012

Spreading around senators' phone numbers / activism is definitely worth not studying for a math test.
=]

Posted by: Gita on January 18, 2012

My day becomes better every time I see someone opposing SOPA. Hopefully we will get this bill killed (sorry bill) or at least rewritten so it's acceptable.

Posted by: Henrik on January 18, 2012

I am not on CC for three days to stand in protest as you said Chris ... But I'll still be here to read onto your blogs ...!!!

Posted by: Aman Jain on January 18, 2012

Wow dude, I approve.

Posted by: Snively on January 18, 2012

Does the government even have a meaningful or effective way to enforce such law? I feel like the internet is too grand of a scale to even comprehend its intricacies.

Interesting post raspberry

Posted by: Chan Hyun Park on January 18, 2012

I didnt imagine the blogs would join this fight this way, mostly becasuse of the stereotype of organizations that dont want to get their feet wet. However, MIT has proven once again that it will be on the leading front for the fight for whats right, no matter what the cost is. Hats of to all the people who work, study, and MIT what it is. This is one of the main reasons that makes me want to attend MIT.

Posted by: Mohammed Amr on January 18, 2012

*and make MIT what it is
small mistake their lol

Posted by: Mohammed Amr on January 18, 2012

Another possible result is that various news sites would also be affected. Can for example the NYTimes site attest that all their links are free of "offending" links to banned sites. The Huffingtonpost, Drudge, Boston.com, etc and so on. It would shortly end up with virtually all sites on the web shut down or blocked.

The authors of those bills are so focused on getting the "bad guys" that they are bringing in a virtual nuke weapon when a mouse trap would do the job. Yup, they will kill some piracy, but at the cost of closing down most of the web.

I have seen more and more congress idiots starting to recant on their earlier positions. They realize that what they thought were benign restrictions are so easy to apply in a broad sense, that it will happen in the worst way. It just will.

Posted by: Pete on January 18, 2012

Nice post! I never comment here, but this one I must do, supporting you, MIT and Internet itself. This destroys Internet on its concept. It's incredible how, on a world with tendencies to open the borders, free software, open source, shared databases and so on, some people try to fight it back and closes their minds (and everyone elses too) to the new, the inovation, the sharing, the freedom. SOPA/PIPA, the Inquisition of XXI Century.

Posted by: Guilherme Wanderley on January 18, 2012

"Excellent."
-- Shao Kahn

Posted by: Master Steelblade on January 18, 2012

"This post, however, is not about whether one should ally with Lessig or Valenti in the interminable copyfight."

If MIT stands for its ideals, it should be. As president of MPAA, the late Jack Valenti loudly and frequently equated sharing information (in any form) to "stealing." If any idea is antithetical to MIT's scientific and educational mission, this one is. Lessig, on the other hand, argues that society derives value from information that is free to be shared.

Calling this debate the "interminable copyfight" expresses an implicitly damaging view of the dispute by suggesting that both sides are equally legitimate and neither should be expected to prevail.

Posted by: Thomas Coffee on January 18, 2012

May I use the MIT Admissions blog to promote my favorite cause, or is that privilege reserved for MIT staff only? I'm sure that the proposed acts would affect MIT, although certainly less than an Iranian nuclear weapon detonating in the Boston area or American economic collapse due to Federal spending that is out of control. I am sure that you feel strongly about the issue, but you are abusing your access by using MIT Admissions resources to disseminate views on an issue which is not directly related to MIT admissions.

FWIW, I happen to agree with your stand on the issue.

Posted by: MIT EC '85 on January 18, 2012

@MIT EC '85
Find something else to complain about. Or, better yet, stop finding things to complain about just so you can complain.

MITAdmissions can do whatever it wants with its site. Don't yell at some person or entity for publishing whatever they'd like on their domain.

Posted by: Snively on January 18, 2012

@MIT EC '85.

I would love to think you could: MIT as a place that treasures knowledge and the human use of it should encourage their undergrads,graduates and pretty much everyone concerned , to publicize their opinions on matters they find crucial.
If MIT admission crew found it right to protest they have every right to, heck I shall say they ought to!

MIT see itself as a democratic academical institute and as such it ought to encourage dialog on impotent matters between its prospective (and already admitted ) students, otherwise they would just raise drones: smart drones , but drones non the last.

Posted by: kitsune on January 18, 2012

Thrilled to see this. It restores my faith in the American political system. When legislators try to slip in a bill they don't fully understand, backed by well-funded corporations that *do* understand it, the internet is capable of defending itself.

We've staged a worldwide protest, made it onto international news, and (hopefully) persuaded tens of thousands to overwhelm our senators and representatives with phone calls and emails. This bill won't pass.

Thanks for bringing the initiative to the MIT admission site, Chris. Any chance we could take down mit.edu, too? wink

Posted by: Nikhil Benesch on January 18, 2012

Love the post. I am curious as to how the government could enforce this legislation, too.

Posted by: David on January 18, 2012

Thank you very much for posting this. I only wish ACTA got as much attention as SOPA and PIPA are getting.

But to think that SOPA/PIPA were unheard of just a few short months ago by almost everyone... now even the most non-tech-savvy people in my school know about it. The way the internet community is uniting against this issue is truly a thing of wonder, and I am glad that MIT is participating in it!

Posted by: Austin on January 18, 2012

https://www.google.com/landing/takeaction/

Dear MIT Staff, students and prospective students...
Maybe we don't have a vote in the Congress but we do have a voice, a voice that if enough people contribute to this, it will be heard. Google has started a great initiative to make the Congress hear of all the people who are in total disagreement with these acts. The website I wrote above is for signing a petition to say NO to SOPA and PIPA.

As you said Chris with the video you posted of Schoolhouse Rock, you intend to educate. What will happen to all those websites who their sole purpose is to educate people, for example thenewboston, lifehacer, hackxcrack, which were as my second school to learn about computers and programming. Those would be gone with the SOPA and PIPA acts, and future generations who wish to learn may not have the opportunity to do it without purchasing a product and those who have not enough resources will be left with only the desire to learn.

Let's just hope those acts are rejected.

Posted by: Eduardo Elizondo on January 18, 2012

I'm going to have to agree with some notion I see here that the internet is filled with too much "junk" left over by miscellaneous, possibly abusive users. The government is probably more aware that there is an incredible access to everything on the web and that people who (arguably) shouldn't are contributing things and sites on the web that are harmful or simply derogatory or very full of (annoying, and unneeded) gossip.
But really, blogs like this work wonders for people. I have really enjoyed looking through these so far...they are awesome. And revealing, and informative. We can't let a legislation that springs as a good solution to problems effectively create MORE inconveniences and problems. I'm not sure about my stance or solution now, but these are my thoughts. Regards, everyone.

Posted by: Samuel Williams on January 18, 2012

Best summary of what is gonna happen if SOPA/PIPA was aproved that I've read. Congratulations! I'm totally against this sort of law. We'd get to the point where countries like China and Iran are, which means total censorship! We would step back not just in communication, but in many other fields that internet is part of. Fiels such as scientific research and bussines would totally get back to the situtation of some decades ago.

Posted by: Barbara on January 19, 2012


The only thing you've done right since December 2010.

m_quinn

Posted by: m_quinn on January 19, 2012

I would have let you know how great it is that you did this earlier, but I was busy not being on the internet!!!!! I extended my blackout a day because I found that I really enjoyed being detached from technology. Also, I book that I had been waiting for arrived yesterday, so I couldn't stop reading.
Anyway, thanks for participating and yay for internet freedom!

Posted by: Amelia B. on January 19, 2012

hey I once heard about the CCC (Chaos Computer Club) ... as I heard it they are kind of the non-extremist alternative to anonymus and try to build up a kind of "parallel internet", that is not regulated and so far, totally free!

I think if you do it right, that would be massive! Maybe a thing for the EECS-department to think about. I am no Computer Scientist - at least not yet (Lecture 4 on 6.00 video course on youtube smile)- so I don't know, how to do it. But if there is a place to realize this project, it is MIT!

Posted by: Max on January 19, 2012

The internet is above any government jurisdiction and should not be regulated at all. I fear to be in a country that has the power and will to block our access to the web.

Posted by: Jack B on January 19, 2012

The School House Rock video is kind of outdated; check out this infographic on how laws are actually made:

http://www.good.is/post/infographic-how-a-bill-actually-becomes-a-law/

I was led to that infographic by this insightful article about more effective strategies for fighting ridiculous but well-lobbied bills like SOPA and PIPA:

http://www.informationdiet.com/blog/read/dear-internet-its-no-longer-ok-to-not-know-how-congress-works-

Enjoy,

hwkns

Posted by: Hawkins '12 on January 21, 2012

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