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Clippings: Will Congress learn to surf the web?

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Posted on January 19, 2012 |
By Andrew Stein



It’s practically an indisputable fact of modern life that information is king. And thanks largely to the free flow of the U.S. Internet, we have access to it in unprecedented abundance.

The speed by which citizens of any socioeconomic class are able to access information, the quality of information they’re able to access and the ability to sort through vast layers of up-to-the second news is at an all-time high for Americans.

I say Americans because not all citizens in the world have access to web tools like Google, Wikipedia and Facebook, which are driven by users — people and organizations — to power the quickest stream of information and support the largest centralized community of ideas in human history.

When I first studied in China, Wikipedia was blocked by the great firewall, or the strictly controlled Chinese Internet space. When I found myself void of the free online encyclopedia, which I use daily to pick up odd bits of information, I felt frustrated and constrained.

That’s why Wednesday was like déjà vu for me. If you visited Wikipedia’s English-speaking website on Wednesday, you would have noticed it was blacked out in protest of two controversial congressional bills: the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate’s Protect IP Act (PIPA), introduced by Vermont’s own Sen. Patrick Leahy.

Strongly supported by major media companies, these bills are mostly aimed at combating illegal Internet access to TV shows and movies. But a long list of information platforms — like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Mozilla and, of course, Wikipedia — feel the bills’ language would give pro-SOPA media and entertainment corporations the power to abuse copyright law. What’s more is that the initial language proposed in the bills would lead to what many companies are calling Department of Justice-imposed censorship of the Internet.

That’s why Google had a black patch over its logo; clicking on the black patch redirected users to a page about its stance on the bills. That’s why Wikipedia didn’t allow access to any of its 3 million-plus English-language articles, except for the one on SOPA. 

Providers of our go-to information tools feel threatened by the powerful interests of the entertainment industry.

In a glimmer of hope for the web companies, the White House last weekend cautioned Congress about these bills in response to strong citizen opposition. As a result, many congressmen and women are calling for further study of the issues involved in these bills, and their future is uncertain.

One thing, however, is for sure: This issue isn’t going away.

The dispute over these bills poses U.S. society with one of the biggest questions surrounding future economic viability and citizen access to information: How does society protect the capacity to profit from content creation yet not censor or gum up the Internet? 

This is a question that clearly deserves more thought and research from Congress because when sites that are driven primarily by the people for the people — like Wikipedia, which is owned by a nonprofit — are shutting down for a day in vehement opposition to a bill led by one of the most influential industries in the country, it’s time to think again. It’s time, Congress, to step away from the corporate lobbyists and listen to the citizens clamoring at your door.

Chris Hayes, editor at large for The Nation, put it best: “Over the past 10 years, as everything else in American life seems to push towards more concentrated power in fewer hands, the Internet has been the one development mitigating against that. It is disruptive and empowering in a way few things are in 21st-century American life, and it won’t stay that way on its own.”

Although the fight over these Internet bills, hitherto, has largely been spotlighted by vying corporate interests, it’s up to the American people to decide the fate of the U.S. Internet. It’s the responsibility of the American people to keep their politicians in check, and it’s the responsibility of those politicians to listen to the people.

As Congress and its all-time high disapproval rating roll back into session, our elected officials have a chance to prove that the American political system isn’t broken.

Reporter Andrew Stein is at andrews@addisonindependent.com.

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