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A day without Wikipedia
January 18, 2012 - Chris Morris
Will Jan. 18, 2012, go down as the day when more Americans referenced Encyclopedia Britannica than they have in the last decade?
But if you try your trusty online encyclopedia Wikipedia today, you won't get too far. The website and its founders are protesting two pieces of legislation in Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, by blacking out the website for 24 hours. Truthfully, Wikipedia isn't leaving you totally in the dark; the main page works. If you try to search for anything, however, you're brought to a page that briefly explains the website's objections to the bills (although you can then follow a link to a longer explanation).
A total blackout it is not, but it gets the point across.
I reported on this a few weeks ago, and the battle over the two bills has intensified dramatically since then. A lot of early supports of the House bill have jumped ship, and Wikipedia isn't alone in its protest: Reddit, Mozilla, WordPress and MoveOn.org have also blacked out their sites for the day.
Google is showing its solidarity by putting a black rectangle over the word "Google" on its home page.
In a nutshell, the intent of SOPA/PIPA is to stop online piracy of music, movies, television shows and whatever else people pirate on the Internet -- the online equivalent of those dudes who hock DVDs and designer sunglasses in New York City.
U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, co-sponsored the legislation. He told me earlier this month that SOPA isn't a perfect piece of legislation, but online piracy needs to be dealt with. It looks like the Obama administration has taken a similar stance. The following is from a response to a "We the People" petition, authored by several White House staffers:
"Let us be clear — online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, and threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation's most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs. It harms everyone from struggling artists to production crews, and from startup social media companies to large movie studios. While we are strongly committed to the vigorous enforcement of intellectual property rights, existing tools are not strong enough to root out the worst online pirates beyond our borders. That is why the Administration calls on all sides to work together to pass sound legislation this year that provides prosecutors and rights holders new legal tools to combat online piracy originating beyond U.S. borders while staying true to the principles outlined above in this response. We should never let criminals hide behind a hollow embrace of legitimate American values."
The piece continues:
"So, rather than just look at how legislation can be stopped, ask yourself: Where do we go from here? Don’t limit your opinion to what’s the wrong thing to do, ask yourself what’s right. Already, many of members of Congress are asking for public input around the issue. We are paying close attention to those opportunities, as well as to public input to the Administration. The organizer of this petition and a random sample of the signers will be invited to a conference call to discuss this issue further with Administration officials and soon after that, we will host an online event to get more input and answer your questions. Details on that will follow in the coming days."
Watertown businessman Matt Doheny, a Republican challenger to Owens in this year's congressional election, has been vocal in his opposition to SOPA. This week, he issued another statement, again calling on Owens to drop his support of SOPA, in favor of a new piece of legislation issued by U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., called the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act.
"I call on Bill Owens to follow my lead – as the president and others have recently done – and oppose the Stop Online Piracy Act," Doheny said. "This bill – and its companion in the Senate, the Protect IP Act – are not salvageable. We must work with the business and tech community on a new law that will both respect copyright and encourage commerce."
I reached out to Sean Magers, spokesman for Owens, for a response. Here's what he said:
"Congressman Owens stands by his position that we need to protect intellectual property in order to save American businesses and jobs. He is always open to changes in the legislation that makes it better."
Finally, a few arguments against SOPA, made by Wikipedia:
"Wikipedians have chosen to black out the English Wikipedia for the first time ever, because we are concerned that SOPA and PIPA will severely inhibit people's access to online information. This is not a problem that will solely affect people in the United States: it will affect everyone around the world."
"Why? SOPA and PIPA are badly drafted legislation that won't be effective at their stated goal (to stop copyright infringement), and will cause serious damage to the free and open Internet. They put the burden on website owners to police user-contributed material and call for the unnecessary blocking of entire sites. Small sites won't have sufficient resources to defend themselves. Big media companies may seek to cut off funding sources for their foreign competitors, even if copyright isn't being infringed. Foreign sites will be blacklisted, which means they won't show up in major search engines. And, SOPA and PIPA build a framework for future restrictions and suppression."
Where are you in this debate? Should Congress take steps to combat online piracy? Do these bills go too far? Should Congress back off on any legislation that attempts to regulate the Internet?
Your thoughts are welcome.
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