Jan. 18, 2012
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — At the start of this week, most of us had never heard of SOPA or PIPA. We all basked in the wide-open sky that is the internet. And then that sky went dark when Wikipedia announced that it would black out access to its English-language site in protest over the SOPA and PIPA bills — two bills that aim to end copyright infringement at what critics say is too great a cost.
Other major sites such as Google and Wired also got involved, blacking out their homepages with large, imposing censorship bars, telling us that this is what their sites could look like should the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act pass.
And on Jan. 18, everyone was angry — and talking about the protest.
"First of all you anger them, right?" says Matt Stempeck, a research assistant at MIT's Center for Civic Media. "Like any good protest, first it inconveniences you. Your commute to work is blocked by a march of some kind. And if you agree with the reason behind the march, you then become a part of that protest. It spreads to you."
The Center for Civic Media feeds off creativity and innovation — and turned its own homepage black to join the protest.
Stempack says blacking out websites is the best way to publicize the bills: "Everyone took for granted that there’s this great place" — the internet — "and why would you get rid of it, and so now we are realizing that we do need to stand up and raise our voice in support of it."
In the middle of Kendall Square, on the 14th floor of One Broadway, is venture capital firm New Atlantic Ventures. Todd Hixon is a managing partner, and he says SOPA and PIPA will hurt innovation.
"I’m just afraid that if you put the emphasis on defense, on stamping out any form of piracy by the most aggressive means possible, which seems to be what SOPA and PIPA are trying to do, that you’re going to stamp out new business models before they have a chance to emerge," he says.
New Atlantic Ventures invests in startups: companies that are led by innovation and risk. It's risk— that main ingredient behind every business venture — that Hixon thinks is in danger of becoming obsolete.
“The jobs that you’re defending are the jobs of movie and music moguls in Hollywood… at the expense of a lot of jobs for people in innovative companies," he says. "There’s a lot of evidence that it’s the innovative companies that create those new jobs in the economy, and I haven’t heard anybody argue that it’s the music companies and movie companies that create new jobs."
While saving jobs and businesses are at the forefront of both sides of the argument, one aspect that hasn’t been discussed is the impact SOPA and PIPA, if passed, will have on our culture.
Topper Carew, an MIT visiting researcher, sits inside the café at the MIT Media Lab. Sunlight pours through the floor-to-ceiling windows as people sit in oversized purple lounge chairs, chatting and eating sandwiches. "I am absolutely against anything that stifles creativity or freedom of expression," he says. "You know, if these self-imposed gatekeepers want to shut that down, they need to be run outta town."
Sitting next to Topper is Derek Ham, who is a Ph.D. student in design computation. Ham is a big supporter of hacking: “As an African American, the whole idea of remixing and remaking is a cultural thing," he says.
Ham thinks being able to re-appropriate things and make them your own is distinctly American, and imposing harsher piracy laws will discourage young people from getting involved in the tech industry.
“I’ve always said that hacking is the perfect gateway to get young African Americans into technology. I tell them, 'Oh, you can manipulate code and do things and make things your own. You can pull pictures, do all types of stuff.' If you’re trying to infringe on any of that, that’s all bad,” he says.
Radical hackers and casual web surfers are now talking about a wide-open internet: an issue we all took for granted before Wikipedia and other websites went dark.
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