Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What's At Stake

In just three hours, the sixth most-visited website on the Internet will transform from a vibrant, virtually unending stockpile of knowledge into a single, blacked-out page. I am 19 years old; since the day my eyelids first fluttered open, technology, computers, and the Internet have been a fact of life, growing at a speed that is incomprehensible to the very people that created it. Over 30 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every single minute; historic events are now measured in Tweets per Second; Facebook processes more pictures in a single day than there are people on this planet; and the amount of information created, shared, and stored in this year alone is greater than the amount of information created since the dawn of time. I've watched as cities of information have blossomed overnight, built on the social structures of human interaction and desire for attention. I have seen technology connect people, improve lives, save lives, create and destroy relationships, even start and win a revolution. And yet I never imagined that my government, the same government that denounces censorship around the world and that fights for undeniable human rights, would bow to the pressure of the collective corporate world and attempt to pass a law that destroys the very vibrancy and freedom on which the world's network is built.

But here we are. We're at a period in technology history where we are effectively handing control of a network so complex it requires an army of experts to maintain, to elected officials who could be our parents. We are watching as they fumble about, unable to understand the technological marvel and complexity that allows this network to run. Most of these people could not define the word "domain," much less understand how such a trivial-sounding word comprises the structural integrity of the Internet. They are failing us because corporate studios in Hollywood are spending millions of dollars to convince them that a piece of legislature will solve the problem of piracy. Instead of focusing on the underlying causes, these corporations have managed to persuade many Senators and Congressmen to vote on a bill that will cause unimaginable damage to the integrity of the Internet as we know it.

A few years ago, I learned about the immense censorship that occurs in China. I saw two images, side by side representing Google Image results for the term "Tiananmen Square." On the left were the results as seen by Americans: bloody, gory images of a massacre. On the right were the results as seen by the Chinese: a few buildings, a monument, and a sunny sky. The fact that a government could actively suppress information from its citizens, especially information involving historic events, astounded me. I've continued to hear about the Great Firewall of China, a country-wide filter applied to the Internet access of citizens to prevent access to controversial information. And every time I read about this I was thankful that I live in the United States, a place where freedoms of speech and press are building blocks of this country. But today I am not so sure. It's hard to imagine living in a place like China; yet I fear if we wait long enough, without acting, we may someday learn.

SOPA would not censor political sites or hide information from the American public; it's a bill aimed at stopping piracy. Piracy is certainly a major problem that needs to be addressed. However, SOPA would put into place a simple and effective mechanism of shutting down websites without appropriate processes. For demonstrable evidence of this, just look at Wikileaks. With a simple phone call, our government turned pay processors and businesses against it without anything resembling a trial. If SOPA or PIPA passes, those in positions of authority will learn just how easy it is to destroy a website and eventually do just that. I am fearful that SOPA will evolve; it will turn from shutting down a few foreign websites for piracy into a massive effort to purge the Internet of compromising information or material "dangerous to national security." It wouldn't be difficult to convince a judge that a site should be banned and with a flip of a switch without due process, it would be.

Previous generations did not grow up with technology; they did not rely on it or start revolutions with it. But the innovations and amazing changes it has made are ours and our children's. I am not content with handing control of this massive, powerful part of our lives to individuals whose vote can be purchased. We as a nation of students and teachers, employees and employers, and businesses and users need to take back control of what we have created. We need to prove to our elected officials that they are voting with our interests in mind, not those of corporate media.

I am going to watch Wikipedia at midnight. I hope that those we have elected are watching also and that the strike made by a few websites is enough to voice our concerns loud enough for them to hear. I just hope they listen.

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