Humankind’s greatest invention is under siege. It’s become too good at what it was designed to do, and too many people have access to it. I’m talking about the Internet and its battle for survival against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) bills that are being debated in Congress.

How will SOPA and PIPA affect online education? It will be the collateral damage. On the surface, both bills seem reasonable. Both bills seek to give power to law enforcement to stop access to “rogue” websites that abuse copyright and exchange counterfeit goods. The bills focus on foreign websites; however, U.S. based Internet companies and technology leaders fear the bills are over-reaching and will have chilling effects on Internet freedoms in the U.S.

This showdown on Capitol Hill is essentially between Hollywood and Silicon Valley.  The Motion Picture Industry of American (MPIA) and Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) have spent over 94 million dollars lobbying for both bills. Silicon Valley struck back today. At last count, over 10,000 websites “blacked out” their pages to protest SOPA. The big hitters (Facebook, Twitter, Google) all took swings at the over-reaching faults in both bills by sending official letters of protest to Congress.

The Internet site Boing Boing released a statement saying SOPA would require them to check “millions (even tens of millions) of pages, just to be sure that we weren’t in some way impinging on the ability of five Hollywood studios, four multinational record labels, and six global publishers to maximize their profits.”

Let me say that I fully support content creators in the film and music industry. I totally get what the content creators want. The RIAA and MPIA say that they want to protect the content creators. After the ugly 2007 Hollywood writer’s strike, I’m sure screenwriters are both pleased and curiously surprised that the MPIA all of the sudden has their back again and is looking out for their best interests. The RIAA has a checkered past, too, in looking out for its creators and blaming everything but management for sagging industry profits.

We do have current laws to protect copyright, by the way. It is illegal to steal copyrighted content on the Internet. Service providers are protected from liability if they remove contested content in a timely manner. This keeps YouTube and similar content sharing sites up and running. SOPA, though, would allow websites to be sued for even briefly and unknowingly hosting or linking to content that infringes on copyright. Web-based companies fear that SOPA and PIPA will kill entire businesses because of a small infringement from one user.

Again, it’s the collateral damage that educators need to worry about. We are at an amazing time in history. To paraphrase Tom Vander Ark, almost anyone can learn almost anything for almost nothing. And that’s a remarkable event in human history. It’s the greatest game changer ever. It’s happened so quickly that education is still trying to grapple with that and maximize on the open educational resources that are available to anyone on the Internet. The revolution has barely begun.

Education has had its own battles with technology. Technology has always been a foe before it’s become a friend to education. The invention of the eraser was going to bring mass cheating on a scale never seen before. Calculators were to kill off our abilities to add and subtract. When TVs were first wheeled into the classroom, community leaders were convinced that teachers would show children soap operas and game shows all day.

We’ve overcome those fears and embraced those technologies just like we are embracing the power of the Internet and all of its resources. It’s rare for education to lead any business sector in technology-related issues, but in this area, we are outthinking and outperforming MPIA and RIAA. We’ve had a long history of adapting to our country’s educational expectations. Clayton Christensen reminds us that educational priorities have successfully shifted from preserving democracy, to providing something for every student, to keeping American competitive, to eliminating poverty. But the film and record industry wants us to dismantle the structure of the Internet so that they can maintain their 20th-century revenue models.

We have one distinct advantage over MPIA and RIAA. We are in direct and extended contact with our customers every day. We study them. We know them. We maximize our limited resources to reach them. We’ll work for free to teach them. We know that Generations X, Y, and Z feel this way about SOPA:

We know that when people break the law by speeding, we need to hold them responsible. Yet, we don’t take away the pavement and sue the road crew.

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Adam Renfro
Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011. Creatives can follow Adam on Tumblr at http://adamrenfro.tumblr.com/. You can also follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AdamRenfro, and you can follow his Flipboard magazine Edu-Nation at http://flip.it/Apupn.

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