Current Magazine

Wikipedia Blacked Out in Protest of SOPA: Was It Worth It?

Posted on the 19 January 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost

Wikipedia blacks out in protest at SOPA; but was it worth it?

The blacked out Wikipedia page

SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, currently being considered by the House of Representatives in the US, and PIPA, the Protect Intellectual Property Act, its sister bill (being considered by the Senate) are losing support after a day in which Wikipedia and other sites, including Wired, blacked out their content. Wikipedia was, however, still available in mobile versions in English; and in other languages (including Latin.)

The bills are intended to deal with the increasing problem of online piracy; especially to do with illegal downloading of films. The propositions say that if you’re found guilty of streaming copyrighted media 10 or more times without permission, within six months, then you’re banged up for five years. The government, and rights holders, would be able to get court orders against sites they think enable or facilitate piracy, which could lead to sites being shut down. They also initially wanted internet service providers to stop users from accessing suspect sites by using Domain Name System blocking – something used in China and Iran already. This provision has now been removed.

The current Digital Millennium Copyright Act, in force since 1998, would be replaced by the bills. The DMCA provides safeguards to prevent abuses and spurious claims – but SOPA and PIPA have no such safeguards, which would mean that copyright holders could file claims against foreign websites willy-nilly.

The bills have sparked fury across the teeming waters of the internet. Other sites that closed down included Reddit, Tumblr and Boing Boing. The main criticisms are that the bills will prevent businesses from innovating as they focus on preventing piracy. How to reconcile the two sides seems nigh on impossible. Copyright holders want to protect their expensive investments; the internet wants stuff for free. So who’s right?

Internet abusing power? The head of the Motion Picture Association of America, Chris Dodd, has called the blackout an “abuse of power,” saying that it was “troubling” when portals intentionally skewed “the facts to incite their users,” simply to promote their own interests.

The blackout rules! Evan Hansen on Wired (in the one piece currently available on the site) called the bills “an audacious power grab at the behest of copyright holders.” The watering down of the bills “fall[s] far short of redeeming” them. Plus, they would set a “precedent that other regimes could use to justify their own censorship efforts.” Piracy should be “bearable”, provided that media businesses are sound. The bills reinforce “an untenable faith in the status quo, and an equally untenable fear of innovation.”

Yeah, but don’t do it again. Wikipedia’s blackout “makes sense,” said Will Oremus, also on Slate, because, unlike Google, Twitter and Facebook, it’s a “nonprofit” foundation. Reddit and Boing Boing are “niche sites”, whose blackouts lend them “the online equivalent of street cred.” But it wouldn’t make sense for Google and its ilk – what’s amazing is that they’re “doing as much as they are.” Google blacking out its logo is “not quite the nuclear option, but it’s a huge display of force for such a narrow target.” And the tactics of the internet industry are working, leaving those in entertainment – who thought “they’d done everything right” – gawping in shock. But the internet has to be careful – you can only shut down “so many times before people lose patience.” This reaction was a “last resort” because the tech companies hadn’t played the game properly. And it won’t happen again – “probably.”

Some “facts” that Twitter users put on the internet after Wikipedia went black, rounded up in The Sun: STONEHENGE is the scaffolding for a project which lost funding in a Bronze Age recession.

The speed of light is slower at night.

The plate was invented by Plato.

Yeah! The bills suck! Matthew Yglesias on said that it’s not like the US is even “suffering from an excessive amount of online piracy.” In fact, a little bit on line piracy is “socially beneficial.” The entertainment industry has been “absurdly” inflating the harm done by infringement. Illegal copying doesn’t represent a lost sale – people download things for free because they can’t afford it. It’s not as if people will want to stop people lending books to each other. Plus, illegal competition puts pressure on the industry – look at iTunes and Hulu, both legal responses to illegal downloads. “Large-scale, unimpeded, commercialized digital reproduction of other people’s works” would destroy creative industries. But we don’t live “in that world.” SOPA isn’t just “overly intrusive” – it’s also a “ ‘solution’ to a problem that’s not a problem.’”

Sledgehammer. The fact is that SOPA and PIPA are just too broad, said Joshua Topolsky on The Washington Post. Imagine some kids are singing along to a Britney Spears song on a social website – that could be seen as piracy; under the bills, all the label would have to do is write to the ISP and then “boom” – no more site. The bills are “like taking a sledgehammer to something when you need a scalpel.”

Wikipedia! Remember what you are! But Wikipedia’s reaction has become an issue – with some Wikipedia editors themselves, said Molly McHugh on DigitalTrends. She quoted an editor, Charles Ainsworth, who said that Wikipedia should stay neutral. There’s even a Wikipedia entry which says that the blackout “destroys forever the concept of its political and geographic neutrality.” Jimmy Wales, the founder, however, disagrees, saying that whilst the articles are neutral, the community needn’t be. However, said McHugh, “an encyclopedia isn’t a place where you want opinions.”

Did anyone care anyway? And it doesn’t matter much anyway, said Jenna Johnson on The Washington Post. Students weren’t freaking out – most are “smart enough to find a way around the blackout.” And Wikipedia isn’t even the only source. Patrick Hayes on The Independent disagreed, saying that the blackout meant we “shouldn’t take internet freedom for granted.”

Time to move on? But, said Dominic Sapulto on The Washington Post, the “response to Wikipedia’s move has been lukewarm at best.” Maybe it’s not even relevant any more. The site doesn’t have “the rock-star appeal it had ten years ago.” It hasn’t integrated social media. The blackout’s just a case of “off to the next Web site.”

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog