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Wikipedia To Go Dark Wednesday To Protest Online Piracy Bills

If you think you’ll have any reason to use the English language version of Wikipedia any time in the next 36 hours or so, you better do it before Midnight EDT tonight, because the online encyclopedia is going dark for 24 hours to protest a controversial bill purported to be aimed at combating online piracy:

The wave of online protests against two Congressional bills that aim to curtail copyright violations on the Internet is gathering momentum.

Wikipedia is the latest Web site to decide to shut on Wednesday in protest against the two Congressional bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act, often called SOPA, and the Protect IP Act, which is often called PIPA. The bills have attracted fierce opposition from many corners of the technology industry. Opponents say several of the provisions in the legislation, including those that may force search engines and Internet service providers to block access to Web sites that offer or link to copyrighted material, would stifle innovation, enable censorship and tamper with the livelihood of businesses on the Internet.

Nearly 800 members of Wikipedia have been debating and voting  whether the English-version of the site should participate in a blackout since December.

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, confirmed the site’s decision on Monday on Twitter, writing: “Student warning! Do your homework early. Wikipedia protesting bad law on Wednesday!”

In a phone interview late Monday, Mr. Wales said that the Wikipedia community hoped to send a clear message to lawmakers and regulators in Washington that people who worked on the Internet and used it daily were not happy about the potential effects of the bills.

“What will make a difference is for ordinary people to pick up the phone and send an e-mail or a letter to their representatives about this,” he said. “When you consider the magnitude of how many people use Wikipedia globally, there is a potential here for really creating some noise and getting some attention in the U.S.”

Mr. Wales said that if passed, the bills could censor what information and links that sites like Wikipedia would be permitted to publish.

“The government could tell us that we could write an entry about the history of the Pirate Bay but not allow us to link to it,” he said, referring to the popular file-sharing site. “That’s a First Amendment issue.”

There’s been much discussion over the past month or so about SOPA, which is designated as H.R. 3261, and its Senate companion bill called The PROTECT IP Act (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011) designated as S. 968. It’s also been an issue that has united the tech community, the online community, civil libertarians on the left, and libertarian-leaning conservatives on the right. On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, the bills, and their content, are the subject of a battle between lobbyists for Hollywood and the entertainment industry (which supports the bill) and the technology industry (which is pretty much united in opposition). The bill is also being supported by the pharmaceutical industry because it contains provisions that would allow rights holders and the government to take action against websites offering counterfeit drugs for sale online.

Hollywood’s arguments in favor of the bill should be fairly obvious:

According to Rep. Goodlatte, “Intellectual property is one of America’s chief job creators and competitive advantages in the global marketplace, yet American inventors, authors, and entrepreneurs have been forced to stand by and watch as their works are stolen by foreign infringers beyond the reach of current U.S. laws. This legislation will update the laws to ensure that the economic incentives our Framers enshrined in the Constitution over 220 years ago—to encourage new writings, research, products and services— remain effective in the 21st century’s global marketplace, which will create more American jobs.”[14]

Rights-holders see intermediaries—the companies who host, link to, and provide e-commerce around the content—as the only accessible defendants.[15]

Sponsor Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) said, “Millions of American jobs hang in the balance, and our efforts to protect America’s intellectual property are critical to our economy’s long-term success.”[14] Smith added, “The Stop Online Piracy Act helps stop the flow of revenue to rogue websites and ensures that the profits from American innovations go to American innovators.”[14]

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) representative who testified before the committee said that the motion picture and film industry supported two million jobs and 95,000 small businesses.[16]

As an intermediate matter, the goals of SOPA and its companion bill are hard to argue against. Online piracy is clearly a form of theft, and it causes the entertainment industry and rights holders to lose millions of dollars per year. Additionally, there’s been some evidence that piracy of intellectual property has become a huge source of revenue for overseas organized crime. Given the ease with which pirated copies of digital media can be transmitted around the world instantaneously, consideration should be given to making sure that the rights of content owners can be protected adequately. Additionally, the fact of piracy arguably hinders innovation in the digital distribution of entertainment because it makes content owners much more wary about wading into a world where their content could be stolen and for sale on the streets of Hong Kong within a week. The movie industry saw how the music industry failed to adequately react to the rise of Napster nearly 15 years ago, and they clearly don’t want to make the same mistake.

Despite the arguably legitimate goals behind the legislation, though, critics have pointed out that both SOPA and PROTECT IP give far too much power to rights holders, and far too little protection to innocent content providers. Bill Reader has an excellent overview of the problems with both pieces of legislation at PJ Media that I recommend to your attention. In short, both bills give either the Federal Government or content owners, or both, extensive powers to force website owners to remove content or sever links with other sites based on the mere allegation that there has been copyright infringement. The bill also purports to give content owners and the government significant powers over foreign websites, including the potential power to force ISPs to block sites deemed to be a source of piracy, a topic which Reader discusses in his article:

I find it hard to disagree with those arguing that both bills could be exploited to censor foreign internet sites. Censoring of foreign sites being one of the signature policies of China, I think that the largely bipartisan backlash I’ve seen is fully justified. I also think that some aspects of the bill, such as the “punishment first, appeal second” approach, which is very much in the spirit of “guilty until proven innocent,” resonate as wrong with a wide band of Americans on both sides of the aisle.

So, while I didn’t see some of the specific loopholes I’ve heard mentioned, the takeaway is that there are definitely plenty of ways both bills could be exploited in the name of censorship, both foreign and domestic. And there are enough loopholes that no simple editing session is going to fix these bills.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has also done extensive work related to SOPA and PROTECT IP, noting most recently that even with recent changes to the legislation, there are still significant problems with the bill.

Legislatively, SOPA seems stalled at the moment. Late last week, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa announced that it had been decided that there would be no action taken on the bill pending further review:

U.S. House Judiciary Committee Member Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA), and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) opponent has announced that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has promised him that he will not bring the bill to the floor. That mean, for all practical intents and purposes, that SOPA is dead.

In a press release, Issa announced that he was canceling his Wednesday hearing on “the impact of Domain Name Service (DNS) and search engine blocking on the Internet, has been postponed following assurances that anti-piracy legislation will not move to the House floor this Congress without a consensus.”

Issa said, “Majority Leader Cantor has assured me that we will continue to work to address outstanding concerns and work to build consensus prior to any anti-piracy legislation coming before the House for a vote.” Without the Majority Leader’s support, SOPA won’t get to the House’s floor, it will not be voted on, and this makes it essentially dead.

This announcement came after public pressure against the bill had started to mount, but seemed to come to a head when the White House announced that it could not support the bill as written:

While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.

Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small. Across the globe, the openness of the Internet is increasingly central to innovation in business, government, and society and it must be protected. To minimize this risk, new legislation must be narrowly targeted only at sites beyond the reach of current U.S. law, cover activity clearly prohibited under existing U.S. laws, and be effectively tailored, with strong due process and focused on criminal activity. Any provision covering Internet intermediaries such as online advertising networks, payment processors, or search engines must be transparent and designed to prevent overly broad private rights of action that could encourage unjustified litigation that could discourage startup businesses and innovative firms from growing.

We must avoid creating new cybersecurity risks or disrupting the underlying architecture of the Internet. Proposed laws must not tamper with the technical architecture of the Internet through manipulation of the Domain Name System (DNS), a foundation of Internet security. Our analysis of the DNS filtering provisions in some proposed legislation suggests that they pose a real risk to cybersecurity and yet leave contraband goods and services accessible online. We must avoid legislation that drives users to dangerous, unreliable DNS servers and puts next-generation security policies, such as the deployment of DNSSEC, at risk.

Let us be clear—online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, 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.

Despite this, the Senate is still scheduled to take up The PROTECT IP Act beginning on January 24th. Which is why the blackout is going forward tomorrow not only on Wikipedia, but also sites such as Reddit, Boing Boing, although it does not appear that Twitter, Facebook, or Google will be joining in the blackout. I’m not sure if the blackout itself is even a good idea, for the most part it seems more likely to annoy people than spur action (and imagine the inconvenience if Google were to shut down for a day). However, these are two very bad bills that need to be stopped and if this is how they end up accomplishing it then I suppose it will have done some good.

Update: Twitter has announced they will not be joining the blackout, however the action Google is taking is likely to put this issue in front of more eyeballs than anything else:

Google said Tuesday that it will post a statement on its Web site voicing its opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act, joining a drive that will see Reddit, Wikipedia, and Boing Boing take their Web sites dark for a period of time on Jan. 18. Google’s actions will not be as dramatic as others — Reddit and Boing Boing will take their sites down for 12 hours starting at 8 a.m., while Wikipedia will black out its English content for 24 hours on Wednesday — but the company’s decision to use its U.S. home page means that its arguments regarding SOPA will reach a huge audience.

In a statement, Google’s news team said, “Like many businesses, entrepreneurs and web users, we oppose these bills because there are smart, targeted ways to shut down foreign rogue websites without asking American companies to censor the Internet. So tomorrow we will be joining many other tech companies to highlight this issue on our US home page.”

Usually legislation like this goes all the way through Congress without the public being all that aware of it. That’s not happening this time.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    According to Rep. Goodlatte

    I googled him just to make sure you weren’t fn’ with us Doug. I mean, if my name was “Good-Latte” I’d probably change it to “Starbucks” or something.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  2. PJ says:

    I’m not sure if the blackout itself is even a good idea, for the most part it seems more likely to annoy people than spur action (and imagine the inconvenience if Google were to shut down for a day).

    I think it will make a lot of people aware.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  3. Hey Norm says:

    “…for the most part it seems more likely to annoy people…”

    Well…if they were shutting down porn sites…now that would be annoying. Shutting down an online encyclopedia which people can falsify edit to provide back-up for Sarah Palin’s dubious historical claims…not so much.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  4. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Wikipedia??

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5

  5. MBunge says:

    Bad legislation like this or worse is inevitable if people don’t give up the idea that they’re entitled to anything they want online for free.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  6. Anderson says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: It’s an internet encyclopedia you could visit to learn factual information about the world. No surprise you haven’t visited it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  7. I prefer google’s non-nuclear approach, but for wikipedia this might be good. Besides, there is a work-around:

    Pick another language and google-translate. lolz, the internets provide.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. Hey Norm says:

    Anderson wins.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. JKB says:

    Tomorrow the brain of those 35 and younger will go dark.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  10. Obvious XKCD reference:

    http://xkcd.com/903/

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. Dan says:

    @JKB: It’s likely that most people under 35 know about google caching and will be just fine.

    Internet commenters looking for facts to back up their already formed opinions on the other hand…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. PogueMahone says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: “Wikipedia??”

    Yeah, the free website that offers the most amount of information on the widest range of topics than any other website; a trove of knowledge that is as accurate or more than Encyclopedia Britannica.
    You know, Wikipedia… a national treasure.

    Cheers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  13. PogueMahone says:

    BTW…
    How valuable is Wikipedia? Just ask any college student.
    Professors may frown on citing Wikipedia, but that’s where the students all start.

    The Spring semester just started. And though the site going black now would not raise as much awareness among college students as it would during the mid-term season, it will go noticed.

    Excuse my French – as I only had one semester of the language of love – but f*ck SOPA.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  14. Jeremy says:

    @PogueMahone:

    Considering the piece of sh*t this legislation is, your French is well excused.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. michael reynolds says:

    I love Wikipedia.

    I also make 100% of my income from copyrighted material. And yes, I do get ripped off. But I am opposed to SOPA and support Reddit and Wikipedia in this. This is the wrong answer to the problem.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  16. The wikipedia and google sites both look good. I also like what wordpress did today.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. mattb says:

    @john personna:
    Those running sites on the WordPress platform can also choose from a number of plug-ins to “black-out” their slides in a single click.

    BTW, the general rule with Wikipedia and college is that it can’t be cited as a primary source (unless of course you are writing about wikipedia). But most of us teach students that it’s a good place to start looking for primary sources.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. John D'Geek says:

    My biggest problem with this sort of legislation is the obvious technological naivete that is behind it. As long as you can’t go to the pirates’ physical location, unplug the box, and take both the pirates and the box to jail, all anything like this amounts to is a speed bump.

    I also take exception with their numbers. I can think of two problems (I’m sure there are more):
    1) How many of those that pirate a thing would have ever paid a dime for it? (The percentage is significantly below a hundred percent*)
    2) How many sales are they driving away with their “hard-ball tactics”?

    There’s a reason Steve Jobs pushed so hard to make iTunes DRM free.

    If the movie industry was really interested in learning from the music industry they’d take notes. There are plenty of people (like myself) who pay retail; I’d even pay a bit more (and do!) if I know I can easily download a copy to my computer legally.

    That’s why iTunes is still thriving.

    * – I recognize that there are those that pay pirates $9.99 rather than paying $39.99 to the “system”. But I’ve also seen the newsgroups — trust me, there’s a lot of free pirating going on; many (if not most) of them would never pay for what they’re getting for free.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0