Will Wikipedia and Google protest change federal legislation to police the Internet?
(UPDATE: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has withdrawn his support of one of the anti-piracy bills under development, the Senate's PIPA legislation. He was a co-sponsor of the proposed law.
"Congress should listen and avoid rushing through a bill that could have many unintended consequences," Rubio said in a post on his Facebook page. "Therefore, I have decided to withdraw my support for the Protect IP Act. Furthermore, I encourage Senator Reid to abandon his plan to rush the bill to the floor. Instead, we should take more time to address the concerns raised by all sides."
The Downtown St. Pete/I Love the Burg website has also joined in the "blackout")
He knows that, at most, about 100 people might be affected by his blog going dark Wednesday.
But Tampa area blogger Jim Johnson didn’t hesitate to include his politics site, The State of Sunshine, among the dozens (perhaps thousands) of websites expected to be “blacked out” today – including popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia, blogging site Wordpress and online magazine Boing Boing – in protest of federal legislation designed to police the Internet.
That’s right: As you read this, students won’t be able to crib term paper material from Wikipedia or find Johnson’s treatises on higher education reform in Florida and early voting. At least, not for today.
Instead, users will be directed to contact information on their local legislators and a primer on an issue which has been roiling the technology and media worlds for months – the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA).
News of the blackout exploded across the globe Tuesday as information about Wikipedia’s involvement spread -- warning users the world’s sixth most-popular website would make all 3.8-million pages of its English edition unavailable for 24 hours starting at midnight Wednesday in the first such protest it had ever undertaken.
“All five people who hit my web site in a day probable won’t be disappointed enough to call their Congressman,” admitted Johnson, a software consultant for a Tampa firm who blogs about politics on the side. “But Wikipedia has enough clout that they can get everyone involved. And if the volume is significant enough, it could force them to re-evaluate the process.”
Other websites will express their protest in different ways. Google, which could sink entire businesses by cutting off access to websites via search results, instead has obscured its famous logo with a large black bar; clicking on it takes you to an information page about SOPA and PIPA. Sites such as Twitter and Storify have also expressed their opposition, but won’t go dark. Others will only switch off for 12 hours.
Proponents of the legislation say both bills – SOPA in the U.S. House of Representatives and PIPA in the U.S. Senate – hobble counterfeiters and thieves who offer access to illegal copies of movies, TV shows and even prescription medications online, from websites based in foreign countries where copyright enforcement is lax. The Motion Picture Association of America says the country loses $58-billion each year to piracy, though several critics have said such amounts are wildly inflated.
According to the Pro Publica website, five Florida legislators support some version of SOPA or PIPA, including Democrat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Weston). Indeed, one of the more interesting elements of this conflict is how support and opposition cross party lines; U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), often an outspoken critic of liberals, has also spoken out against SOPA just like left-leaning activists MoveOn.org.
But today's protests also angered supporters of the bills; originally considered dead, SOPA may now be scheduled for markup next month, according to its main sponsor.
"Some technology business interests are resorting to stunts that punish their users or turn them into their corporate pawns, rather than coming to the table and finding solutions,” read a statement from Chris Dodd, the former U.S. Senator from Connecticut who now serves as chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, a major supporter of the legislation.
"A so-called ‘blackout’ is another gimmick,” Dodd wrote, “designed to punish elected and administration officials who are working diligently to protect American jobs from foreign criminals."
But some critics of both bills say they are like swatting a fly with a bazooka, handing government and media companies sizable powers to restrict content on the Internet with no real guarantee the laws will stop piracy, using provisions largely developed without public input.
"I don’t think raising public awareness is a publicity stunt," said Corynne McSherry of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group opposed to the legislation. "(The bills’) proponents have tried to push these bills through quickly and under cover of darkness; when people learn about the content of these bills, they get very concerned."
Of course, what exactly is in these bills, and what the wording means, causes the most bitter debate. And because both bills are still under development, it is tough to know exactly what each might require.
Each tries to stop piracy by blocking access to foreign sites illegally featuring copyrighted material from the U.S., while eliminating their advertising revenue and income from online payment systems such as Pay Pal.
Under their provisions, media companies and the government could obtain court orders to block sites or parts of sites from U.S. websites and search results; the laws would require search sites, online encyclopedia, aggregator websites and Internet service providers to ferret out and block access to sites considered "rogue" users of copyrighted materials.
Even before the blackout started, there were signs the massive publicity was having an effect. A spokeswoman for Wasserman Schultz, a co-sponsor of SOPA, said the protest revealed the need to find a compromise.
"The Congresswoman recognizes that we need to have legislation that balances a strong, open, and free Internet, while at the same time protecting Americans from companies that profit by stealing and repackaging other people’s work,” said Mara Sloan, press secretary for Wasserman Schultz. “She has heard from constituents both for and against the legislation and she feels strongly that we need to find a balanced compromise."
But McSherry said the bills would create a new version of the Internet for U.S. citizens, mimicking efforts by more restrictive countries such as China to keep their population from select websites. Even websites with advice on how to circumvent content blocking in North Korea or China might also be punished if others use the information to beat U.S. restrictions.
The Senate may vote on debating PIPA next Tuesday. McSherry said she hopes legislators scrap both SOPA and PIPA, starting a new process utilizing input from the public and technology community from the very beginning.
"No matter what happens (today), the activism is just beginning," she said.