SOPA and PIPA bills lose support on Capitol Hill as Google, Wikipedia and others stage protests

January 18, 2012

Tech companies have for months been voicing opposition to anti-piracy bills known as the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act. Today, some companies made their boldest moves yet in showing their objection to the bill. Hayley Tsukayama and Sarah Halzack report :

At the stroke of midnight Wednesday, large swaths of content that Web surfers have gotten used to looking up every day started disappearing.

Visitors to Wikipedia who are trying to search the encyclopedia’s usual trivia-filled pages are instead greeted by a shadowy “W” and a message saying, “Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge” — unless they type in the words SOPA or Protect IP ACT.

Craigslist isn’t imposing a blackout per se, but before searchers can access the classified listings they’re hit with a message asking them to tell their senators and congressmen to oppose two online piracy bills working their way through Capitol Hill.

The online blackout is part of a protest by popular Internet sites against the House’s Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and the Senate’s Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). Companies argue that the bills would impose heavy regulatory costs, harm innovation, and give the government too much power to shut down Web sites accused of copyright violations even if they are later found to be innocent of the charges.

“The entire approach is philosophically wrongheaded,” Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said Tuesday evening in an interview with The Washington Post before the protest began.

If you fire up Google’s home page, you’ll also notice a change. Instead of a cheery Google Doodle, a black censorship bar has been hastily thrown over the logo (users can actually see the wrinkles). The message “Tell Congress: Please don’t censor the Web” is displayed under the search box. Click on the blackened logo or the link, and it directs you to a history of the anti-SOPA and anti-PIPA movement.

Head to the social news site Reddit, and you’ll see only a page of information on the bills that tells how to contact your local member Congress and gives updates on the live protests the Web site is staging across the country.

The twin bills were drafted to target foreign Web sites that illegally post copyrighted material from the United States. But these Web firms argue that the onus of blocking out pirated material rests on U.S. companies — search engines, aggregators and forums — who worry they’ll have to take on the role of policing every link on their Web sites.

Wikipedia’s blackout is perhaps garnering the most media attention. But is the site still relevant? Dominic Basulto writes:

The Blackout of Wikipedia — one of the most popular destinations on the Internet — had the potential to disrupt ten million U.S. Internet users, according to online research company, ComScore. Wikipedia also encourages millions more from outside the technology and Internet community to find out more about the potential impact of SOPA on free speech and innovation. Yet, coming as it does nearly a month after other leading entities have taken a very public stance against SOPA and days after President Obama indicated that passage of the House bill, SOPA, and its Senate counterpart, the Protect IP Act, would be unlikely. In light of this, Wikipedia’s decision to launch the blackout seems like a case of too little, too late.

At one time, Wikipedia was the poster child for the freewheeling, open-source mentality of the Web. Ten years ago, Wikipedia would have been leading the charge against any legislation, such as SOPA, that was perceived to be anti-Internet. Wikipedia is one of the greatest collective knowledge-gathering experiments in the history of the Internet. Yet, when it came to SOPA, which poses a very real threat to everything that it stands for, Wikipedia blinked. Only when pro-SOPA sentiment became fashionable, with sites such as Tumblr and Redditleading the way, did Wikipedia join the war on SOPA.

While there has been some hue and cry across the Internet about the potential impact of a Wikipedia Blackout, the response to Wikipedia’s move has been lukewarm at best. In fact, much of the response to the Blackout has not been on how it will impact the war on SOPA — it has focused on how students and other researchers can manage a Wikipedia work-around for 24 hours. When Jimmy Wales announced the Wikipedia Blackout on Twitter, his first concern was for students, not businesses.

Internet companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter — companies that are essential to today’s businesses and society — are not going dark for SOPA. Google posted a link to a note about SOPA on its already sparse home page and the Google Doodle Wednesday was a simple, black censorship bar over the company’s logo, while Twitter and Facebook have not committed to changing much of anything. Facebook, in fact, is using the day to unveil its new Open Graph applications, while Twitter’s Dick Costolo has commented that the Wikipedia Blackout is all a bit of misguided foolishness.

Could it be the case that, after a decade of driving innovation on the Web, Wikipedia is no longer relevant?

Perhaps the first place to look for an answer is Wikipedia itself, which has, in several ways, failed to keep pace with the rapid evolution of the Internet. With all due respect to the site’s ability to capture intelligence and knowledge from the Web on nearly every topic under the sun, the site no longer has the rock-star appeal it had ten years ago. While other sites have been integrating social elements — even simple things such as the Facebook Like button — and updating themselves for the visual Web, Wikipedia still looks like something out of the text-heavy 1990s. The social interaction on Wikipedia, such as it is, actually takes place behind the scenes, out of reach of the social Web.

The anti-piracy bill would not only impact major businesses like Google. Small business owners, too, could be affected were it to be made a law. Olga Khazan reports:

In the controversy over the Stop Online Piracy Act, a rift has emerged between two camps of small business owners: Web entrepreneurs whose businesses rely on traffic from links to content they did not create and the independent artists and others who produce the material and want to be paid for it.

Whether the measure becomes law - the bills’ momentum has been stalled by mass online protests - does not erase the fact that the need for stronger anti-piracy legislation remains, say some content makers.

“SOPA is overreaching and needs some work,” said Dunlap, who is chief operating officer of  Excelsior  Media in Las Vegas, which provides video support to independent film makers.  “But what’s getting lost is that the protections we have now are inadequate. We’re very frustrated that opponents are guiding the dialogue.”

More from The Washington Post:

Glenn Beck slams SOPA

On SOPA blackout day, Senate Web site has ‘technical difficulties’

Zuckerberg asks Facebook subscribers to stop SOPA

Boehner: No consensus on SOPA

SOPA debate: Who’s involved and what are the stakes?

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