Thoughts on SOPA, PIPA, Piracy, and Democracy

Overheard in my classroom the day many sites went #blackoutsopa:

Boy 1: Dude, did you hear about the Google page today?

Boy 2: Ya, it’s so cool. Booooo! SOPA!!!

Girl 1: What’s SOPA?

Boy 1: The government wants to stop us pirating movies ‘n’ stuff.

Girl 2: WHAT?!?! Boooooooo!

Boy 2: Ya, I need to pirate stuff!

Are there more difficult teachable moments to enact than Wikipedia going black? As Clay Shirky reminds us, SOPA and PIPA are less about piracy and more about democracy. For my students, however, it’s challenging to take the conversation meaningfully in that direction. They don’t perpetually juxtapose a world of share, send, download, and upload  with one where we sat on a couch waiting for an old white guy to tell us about what was happening in the world. They don’t know that latter world. It’s a History Channel episode.

The ability to pirate video, audio, and gaming content means a lot to them, however. Want to see a group of kids collaborate like a pride of lions stalking buffalo? Ask them if they know how to get movie x or game y for free.

Yes, it’s so important that we engage students in learning about CC licensing, intellectual property, and the ethics of the internet. And, yes, most young people today are grossly ignorant about these issues. But, no, the best way to do this is not by wagging one’s finger like so many Just Say No educational videos. And, no, it’s not the kids that are the problem.

All of us adults are conveniently looking the other way when we pretend that swiping the credit card for the hardware is the end of the transaction. We’re also turning our glances when we say we are against downloading the Harry Potter movie yet will work that Xerox machine in the copy room until you can cook an egg on it.

Now, to get off my own soapbox and back to that teachable moment…

Do you know what made it a lot easier to have a discussion about SOPA and PIPA in my class? The fact that my students post regularly to the internet, comment on one another’s work, receive comments from the far reaches of the globe, remix work, share links, and honour CC licensed work.

I asked the students how they would feel if their ability to do all of things was restricted, or even taken away, without debate or a tribunal of some variety. The room went silent for a minute which felt like an hour, but we proceeded to have a rich discussion about democracy without ever mentioning the word itself.

I know they still care much more about whether the next Eminem song will get on their iPods, but at least we were speaking about something we really know, not just have heard of.

You may be able to stop people from sharing their creations, but you can’t unlearn the power of the act itself. Stop SOPA and PIPA.


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