Verbum Ultimum: Information Infringement
Over the past week, numerous factions of American society have joined in protest of the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, currently being debated in the House of Representatives, and its counterpart in the Senate, the Protect IP Act. A coalition of new media companies, civil liberties groups, politicians and common citizens have rapidly mobilized to pressure legislators into withdrawing their support for the two bills. In recent days, such efforts have spurred numerous prominent political figures to denounce SOPA, and it now appears Congress is unlikely to pass this legislation. For this, we breathe a sigh of relief. Although the intent of the acts is to protect copyrighted material from piracy and illegal use, the acts would restrict the free flow of information through the Internet in ways profoundly detrimental to both our campus community and society at large.
SOPA would empower the U.S. Attorney General to take immediate legal action against any "foreign infringing site" that has users in the United States. Furthermore, internet service providers, search engines, payment providers and advertising services would be held liable for failing to promptly cease activity with such sites or for hosting content that would allow users to circumvent restrictions. The potential negative implications of this for free expression and the exchange of information across the Internet are tremendous. Any social media website could be held legally responsible for user content and links to copyright-infringing material, and search engines such as Google could conclude that the potential costs of providing access to such forums are too high. The consequences of adopting SOPA would extend beyond illegal pirating and spread a chilling effect throughout the web on the breadth of accessible content.
Here at Dartmouth, we rely enormously on the Internet for both academic and personal use. The rise of social media has indisputably broadened the range of intellectual and social resources at the average student's disposal. Data-sharing forums such as YouTube, Reddit, Facebook and many others have hatched unprecedented levels of cultural innovation in the form of user-generated content. It is true that the Internet often serves as an information dump, and not everything on these websites is a product of creative invention. The fact remains, however, that social media and information-sharing websites broadens the range of academic and cultural possibilities in ways that previous generations of Americans could hardly imagine. The continued operation of these dynamic modern processes is contingent upon the unrestricted flow of information.
The strongest proponents of this legislation the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America have legitimate grievances against the proliferation of illegal file sharing. Still, heavy-handed laws like SOPA will merely stifle the very sort of artistic ingenuity that the MPAA and RIAA claim to defend. We join advocates of free expression everywhere in calling for the defeat of these draconian efforts.