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DeFazio on Digital Democracy

Oh no, where did Wikipedia go? On Jan. 18 more than 115,000 websites, including Wikipedia, Google and Craigslist, either went black or put up banners to protest SOPA (Stop Online Piracy) and PIPA (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act). These two bills were created to protect intellectual property rights on the internet, but opponents were concerned that the bills infringed on websites’ First Amendment rights to speak freely and disseminate information.

Two days after the protests, and one day after the Congress tabled SOPA, Congressman Peter DeFazio spoke to a UO course on “Internet, Society and Philosophy” about online property rights. During a Q&A session DeFazio and a lecture hall full of university students grappled with the difficult political questions that the U.S. faces as a democracy in the digital age.

DeFazio compared the “unconstitutional provisions” of SOPA and PIPA to the PATRIOT Act, and said that he had been opposed to the two bills for a while. He asserted that the bills were wrought with ambiguous terminology and that they gave undue power to the government to change or remove content on the web without any court proceedings.

“The problem of intellectual property rights on the internet is real and we need to deal with it, but this wasn’t the right solution,” DeFazio said, “These bills threatened the future of the internet.” As an alternative he endorses a less stringent and more tightly worded bill called OPEN (Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act) introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden.

DeFazio believes that the huge participation and success of the recent online protest against SOPA and PIPA have tremendous implications. “It shows that the people can take on political forces and change the direction of Congress,” he said. “It could be a new form of democratization, and I’m hopeful that there’s a way to harness this to support a more progressive politics.” The discussion ended with resounding applause and with DeFazio encouraging students to get involved and get active in all of the issues that impact their daily lives, even beyond the internet.