Online censorship

At universities like Alvernia, as well as those across the country, procrastinating students learned two valuable lessons on Jan. 18. First, they learned that waiting until the last minute to do research might just backfire, and then they learned other ways to get information — besides relying on sites like Wikipedia. 

On Jan. 18, Wikipedia and thousands of other websites went black for 24 hours in protest of two proposed anti-piracy bills making their way through the House and Senate: Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA).

For college students, SOPA and PIPA could limit access to research information and material for their work. While most professors don’t allow Wikipedia as a sole source of information, it is considered a good starting point. 

“The key to using Wikipedia is to understand that it is a social network of ideas rather than a reliable academic resource,” says Dr. Caroline Fitzpatrick, assistant professor of communication, and Communication Law professor at Alvernia University. “Even the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, has said that his volunteer-driven online encyclopedia shouldn’t be used for serious research.”

According to protest participant Mozilla Firefox, the January strike was the largest online protest in history. In one day, approximately 40 million people viewed Mozilla’s “special action page,” and in turn generated 360,000 emails to Senators and House Representatives. And yet, both bills, though now stalled, are still on the table.  

“Do we need better regulations for online piracy? Absolutely. However, a blanket bill such as SOPA is an insult to public intelligence,” says Fitzpatrick. “The bill showcases an utter lack of understanding the complexity of disseminating information in the online world. These types of bills aren’t constitutional. The bill may be well intentioned (or not), but it is poorly written and infringes on freedom of expression…and that lax approach costs taxpayers money because of the lawsuits it provokes. Censorship, in any form, is the lazy man’s strategy for handling difficult situations.”

SOPA is an anti-piracy bill meant to protect copyrighted, intellectual property and counterfeit goods. Websites identified as having unlawful material would be censored. Search engines would be banned from linking to these sites, and advertisers as well as payment facilities would be barred from conducting business with the censored sites. In addition, Internet service providers would be required to block access to any censored sites. 

Bill supporters like the Motion Picture Association of America say that more than $58 billion is lost to the U.S. economy annually due to content theft. Under current law, if someone finds their copyrighted material being illegally displayed on a website, such as YouTube, they contact the offending site to have the material removed. YouTube removes the pirated material, and visitors clicking on removed video links find the message, “this video has been removed.” 

PIPA is also designed to protect intellectual property, but targets foreign websites. Opponents say the proposed legislation threatens free speech and innovation, and enables law enforcement to block access to entire internet domains — even if pirated material is posted on a single page of a website, such as a movie posted on YouTube. 

Google and Mozilla Firefox have raised concerns that SOPA and PIPA might require search engines to delete domain names, creating world-wide censorship and violating the First Amendment. 

The Jan. 18 protests included an estimated 7,000 websites, petition drives, boycotts of companies that support the legislation, and a rally held in New York City. The following day, self-proclaimed “Hactivists” slowed or shut down major websites that support SOPA legislation.  

Read more about SOPA in USA Today

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