In Free Ride, I case a skeptical eye on Google’s contributions to universities like Stanford and Harvard, as well as organizations like Creative Commons and the New America Foundation. Reactions have varied: Journalists taught to follow the money see this as responsible reporting, while academics with fellowships at Google-funded institutions cried foul.The institutions, all of which I contacted for comments, objected as well.
You can decide for yourself if I have a point. When I did a Businessweek story on this issue, I got the following response from Stanford Law School: “As an institution, Stanford Law School does not take an advocacy position on issues, political or otherwise, and maintains a position of strict autonomy when it comes to academic research.” (The statement also contained information on its research policies.) And yet tomorrow the Stanford Law School’s Center for Information and Society will hold a panel on “What’s Wrong With SOPA?” that will “explore the potential impact of SOPA on Silicon Valley, the concerns that have been voiced by legal scholars, technology companies, entrepreneurs, engineers and venture capitalists, and what the technology sector can do to make a difference in the outcome of this bill.” Panelists include two Stanford professors, a Google copyright counsel, a venture capitalist, a former Google attorney, two top executives at technology companies – and no one who seems to believe this bill isn’t a menace to society as we know it.
Personally, I think SOPA is too vague – I think most of the objections to the bill are hysterical, but it needs to be more specific. I’m sure that plenty of people who read this blog will disagree, and that’s fair enough – this is an important issue that deserves serious debate. But does online copyright infringement ever really receives serious debate at Stanford, where Google has donated generously to the Law School and the university’s dean sits on the company’s board? (There are two sides to a debate: One of the panelists, Fred von Lohmann, is an extremely smart lawyer and a nice guy but I’m not sure who he’d debate with.) Could they not find anyone to argue the other side?
Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone who objects to SOPA favors piracy or anything like that: There are serious issues about which reasonable people can disagree. But how much disagreement will there be at a panel that seems structured to come off like a pep rally? If these lawyers have convictions and the arguments to back them up, shouldn’t they go out of their way to invite the other side? More important, isn’t this exactly the kind of issue that Stanford’s statement says it doesn’t take an advocacy position on?