Today Wikipedia has blacked out its English language pages in protest again the proposed anti-piracy legislation in the US, which it says could "fatally damage the free and open Internet."
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) bills that have caused the controversy are intended to stop the infringement of US copyright material by overseas websites. If passed, SOPA would give the US Justice Department and copyright holders the power to seek court orders to block search engine results or websites linking to pirated material. PIPA, due to come before the Senate on January 24th, proposes similar measures.
Wikipedia objects that the proposed laws will block entire sites unnecessarily and place the onus on site owners to police the material they link to, with damaging consequences:
"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."
The proposed bill has the backing of numerous media and entertainment groups, including the Entertainment Software Association and the Motion Picture Association of America. A vocal supporter has been Rupert Murdoch, who directed some angry tweets at Google, an opponent of the legislation. Murdoch tweeted that Google "streams movies free" and "sells [adverts] around them", accusations which the internet giant has denied.
The White House issued a statement over the weekend, which appeared to support opponents of SOPA, stating "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." This caused some to conclude that the bill was already dead; Forbes ran an article headlined "Obama says so long SOPA, killing controversial internet piracy legislation".
But Wikipedia was not convinced: "We don't think SOPA is going away, and PIPA is still quite active. Moreover, SOPA and PIPA are just indicators of a much broader problem. All around the world, we're seeing the development of legislation intended to fight online piracy, and regulate the internet in other ways, that hurt online freedoms."
Wikipedia is not alone in opposing SOPA and PIPA; Reporters Without Borders, Reddit and WordPress.org to name a few, have joined with the blackouts. Individuals have taken part as well; sopablackout.org has published code making it easy for any user to put up a blackout banner on his or her own website.
This isn't the first time that Wikipedia has blacked out its pages to oppose controversial legislation. In October last year Italian Wikipedia blacked out its content to protest a proposed Italian law forcing bloggers deemed to be publishing defamatory material to issue a correction within 48 hours or else face a large fine.
Some media outlets have responded to the Wikipedia blackout in a jokey way. The Guardian's Technology Blog is inviting users suffering from Wikipedia withdrawal symptoms to write in with their questions to Patrick Kingsley, who will answer them armed with "a stack of volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Who's Who". The Washington Post's Style Blog has issued advice about how to "survive" the blackout, ranging from "there is this thing called a library" to "call your grandpa".