By Loo True

When I was in 11th grade my English class read 1984, the famous dystopian novel by George Orwell, about a society in which the government controls everything, even its citizens’ thoughts. In order to make us understand the importance of questioning authority and authenticity, and to hit home the value of sharing information, my teacher created a wildly elaborate hoax of a lesson.

When we came into class that morning, Teach announced we’d be taking a short break from 1984 to focus on the work of a great poet. Although we dug 1984 quite a bit, I think as a class we were generally excited to take a break from all of the grim melancholy of the classic. After passing out some poetry Xeroxed from an old book by his favorite Nobel Prize winning author, he proceeded to have us read it and discuss what we liked about it and why we thought it was worthy of the Nobel Prize. He passed out a page with a photo and a short biography of the author. Staring at the picture of the old man, absorbing his words, I wondered why I’d never heard of him before. Silently attributing it to my youth and lack of literary knowledge, I offered my opinion, telling everyone I thought I’d just found my new favorite author.

As a young student I was taught to listen and learn from my teachers without questioning them. In my eyes, Mr. S was the ultimate authority, and therefore, whatever he said was “amazing poetry” must be just that. It wasn’t until about 15 minutes before the end of the lesson that he exposed the truth. Gathering around the classroom computer to Google the author, we realized this poet didn’t exist. Mr. S had written and typed up all the poetry himself, then made it look like it came from an old book. The picture and biography he used came from the Wikipedia article of the voice actor Anthony Daniels, better known as C3PO from Star Wars.

Leaving class that day I felt duped. What I thought was an interesting lesson on a famous poet turned out to be my teacher’s example of mind manipulation, 1984 style. Never had I experienced more convincingly the importance of questioning the information that was given to me. All it took was a simple misleading lesson for me to start appreciating where my information was coming from. That night, reading the last few pages of Orwell’s novel, I thought about what it would be like to live under a government that controlled what you were able to know and learn.

On January 24th, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on SOPA, a legislative bill that stands for the Stop Online Piracy Act. Although the bill’s aim is mostly to stop foreign Internet piracy of various forms of media as found on sites like The Pirate Bay, more is implicated if the legislation passes. Under the SOPA act, the government, or any rights holder, will have the ability to obtain a court order to stop the infringing website from using the content, under only the belief that copyright infringement is taking place. Sounds a lot like Thoughtcrime to me.

While a law protecting people from having their work infringed upon is good in theory, the overreaching power that the bill would employ would ensure that access to works in question would be drastically reduced. Developments like SOPA have already taken place in countries like China and Iran, where information or websites dealing with anything seen as anti-government are shut down. In the United States, websites that thrive on the passage of user-generated data will flounder. Service providers like Comcast would in some cases be forced to remove all links to the implicated website and to stop doing business with them entirely. Thankfully, due to huge protests by U.S. citizens and a virtual blackout of the Internet on Thursday, January 19th, the bill has been shelved for further consideration, and some say it’s unlikely to pass without major changes to it.

I discovered Wikipedia in junior high school. Since then I’ve used it countless times to research anything and everything I find interesting, and although Mr. S taught me to check up on my sources of information, the thought of Wikipedia ceasing to exist makes me sad and anxious. If SOPA gets passed Wikipedia would all but disappear. Google searches would yield far fewer results and half the pretty pictures you see on blogs would be gone. On the same token, sites like Youtube and Etsy would be much different, and remixed music would be hard to come by. In a world that is inundated with the sharing of each other’s information, when and where do we implement property rights without destroying microcosms of learning, activity, and information?  Acts like SOPA would change the Internet from what it’s billed as, a “World Wide Web,” to something more closely mirroring the totalitarian Big Brother bullshit in 1984. If our Internet is censored and thus one of our main sources of information is quashed, WHERE WILL WE END UP? Things for our Reps in Congress to consider when they re-write the next draft.