If you’re like me, you probably felt today’s planned Wikipedia site blackout even if you weren’t anywhere near the Internets; you felt it, at 12:01AM EST, as a great disturbance in your accessible knowledge base, as if millions of crowdsourced voices speaking expertly on topics many and varied from aardvarks to zymurgy suddenly cried out in terror -- and were suddenly eradicated.
Wikipedia is dark today in protest -- or at least to raise awareness -- of two pieces of proposed legislation in Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which is the House version, and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) which is the Senate’s take on the same basic concept (in a hilarious aside, it's clear the IP in the bill title stands for "intellectual property," but what you probably didn't know is that the "PROTECT" is ALSO an abbreviation, the whole name being "Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property" -- I shudder to think how many hours were spent just coming up with a name that could be shrunken into "PROTECT IP", but that's the US Congress for you).
Both of these bills are intended to crack down on online piracy, especially torrent sites like the famed Pirate Bay and its bretheren. While copyright laws already exist in the US, non-US sites -- as most torrent sites conveniently happen to be -- cannot be held accountable under existing copyright regulations.
SOPA (or PIPA, which is the bill actually scheduled for a vote later this month) would accomplish this by preventing US-based search engines, or any US-based site really, from showing said sites in their search results, or linking to them at all.
The more pressing concern is that the language in this legislation could ostensibly hold site operators responsible for what community members upload, which would be death to community-driven sites like YouTube, and -- yup -- Wikipedia. It would be virtually impossible for a site like YouTube to continue to exist under SOPA, as the US government could hypothetically shutter the site if its maintainers failed to ensure that no one ever uploaded any information that could be perceived as even marginal copyright infringement.
As things currently stand, in a non-SOPA world, if I upload a video I do not own the rights to -- say, an episode of "My Two Dads" -- to YouTube, the owner of the copyright can send a request to YouTube to remove the infringing content. So long as YouTube cooperates, and they usually do, they are not responsible for my callous disregard for intellectual property.
Under SOPA, the phrasing is such that the law could be interpreted that YouTube itself could face legal action because I went and did something illegal on their site. Indeed, under the bill’s original wording, any site that even linked to YouTube could face legal trouble if YouTube had anything on it that might be copyright infringement. The same goes for any other user-generated site on the web, be it a blogging site like WordPress or even Facebook.
You can understand why tech folks are up in arms about this.
The primary complaint is that while this law MIGHT serve to prosecute people engaged in full-scale piracy and IP theft, it would inevitably also punish millions and millions of people who wouldn’t know a torrent if it walked up and kicked them in the shin.
It has also been suggested that the authors of the bill are horrifically clueless about how the Internet actually works, and that may be true as well.
Most of the public support of SOPA, unsurprisingly, comes from various communications behemoths like Disney, Time Warner and NBCUniversal, as well as many other groups representing the film, music and video game industries (you can read the full constantly-updated list here) -- all people who lose money when piracy happens.
Their frustration is understandable. However, SOPA’s opponents argue that this legislation could potentially have catastrophic effects on the whole of the Internet as we know it, and that is unacceptable.
Thus, Wikipedia has gone dark for today to demonstrate what a post-Wiki world would look like, and I won’t be able to look up the name of that guy in last night’s episode of "Justified" that I just KNOW I have seen in something else but can’t remember what.
Nor will I be able to look up what year the bra was invented, or where Sylvia Plath went to high school. No, these are not exactly burning questions, but I and many others have evolved into creatures accustomed to being able to look up the answer to virtually any question online, in seconds, so this is a palpable loss.
And Wikipedia’s not alone. Reddit (massive social media news site), Boing Boing (legendary blog of awesome things), and the I Can Has Cheezburger network of sites (NO LOLCATS FOR YOU!) [And Craigslist, wonderland for perverts! ] are all going silent, as well as numerous other sites and individual blogs -- The Oatmeal, for example, takes the blackout in a particularly hilarious direction.
So now you know why. As a result of the backlash, the original version of SOPA has been temporarily "shelved" by the House, although that doesn't mean it won't come back in a revised form, and PIPA still poses a very real problem as it goes up for debate in the Senate on January 24th.
If you’re angry about this and want to do something about it, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF to its friends) has a handy online form you can use to both look up your elected representatives AND send them a pre-written message, or write your own, explaining why you’re not down with this Internets-censorship business.
It seems even omniscience, like freedom, isn’t free these days. We’re gonna have to fight for it. So join me! Do it to preserve my ability to solve the mystery of what year "SeaQuest DSV" got cancelled, if for no other reason. My ability to sleep at night depends upon it.