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 Borders, Google, Mozilla, and many other in disrupting our service to protest SOPA and PIPA.
- Create a blacklist of banned websites comparable in its effect to the Great Firewall of China
- Kill websites that rely on user generated content like Etsy, Flickr, and Vimeo (and Facebook, and YouTube, and Wikipedia, and, for that matter, MIT Admissions) by creating an “end-run” around the DMCA safe harbor provisions
- Suffocate startups by imposing intolerably high liability costs that will drive investors away
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.
You should also watch this video by Clay Shirky explaining SOPA: