If you tune your Web browser to Wikipedia, you'll find not the familiar search bar, "Today's featured article," "In the news," "Did you know…," "On this day…," but the screen pictured on the left with this message (in case the type is too small in the picture):
"Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge
For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia."
Awareness of what? SOPA – the Stop Online Piracy Act, officially H.R.3261, and the Senate version, PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act), officially S.968.
According to Wikipedia and other opponents of these two pieces of pending legislation, SOPA and PIPA could result in the government asserting Big Brother-like censorship over the Internet, shutting down entire Web sites it suspects of harboring content pirates.
So Wikipedia and dozens of other Web sites have decided to go dark today in protest.
What is SOPA?
You've heard of Napster? Bit Torrent? These are Web sites notorious for making pirated content – movies and music, mainly – available for free. Web-savvy surfers use these and other sites to steal – there's really no other way of putting it – content. It's as if someone saunters into Tower Records (if you can find one), stuffs their pants full of DVDs and CDs, and saunters out.
While law enforcement and lawsuits by copyright holders (primarily the MPAA and RIAA) have crippled such piracy in the U.S., many "rogue" foreign sites continue to supply Internet thieves with stolen movies, music, games, etc.
To fight these online criminals, Congress wrote SOPA and PIPA. Upon their introduction last fall, the bills garnered enthusiastic support from a variety of media and intellectual property companies and organizations, including the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA, the folks who rate movies), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
SOPA and PIPA were just as quickly opposed by a variety of Internet and technology companies, including Google, Facebook, Mozilla (the folks behind the Firefox Web browser), Wikipedia and the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA, the folks who put on the just concluded Consumer Electronics Show), who believe the enforcement aspects of SOPA and PIPA are too broad and condone Internet censorship.
Which side are you on?
Over the weekend, the Obama administration came out against SOPA and PIPA, a stance News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch attacked on Twitter (whose stance was subsequently attacked on Twitter). It's somewhat ironic Murdoch took to the very media he hopes to cripple, an irony likely lost on him.
No one disputes this virtual thievery costs American content producers millions of dollars every year in lost sales. As the White House statement expressing opposition to the two acts notes:
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.
The question is how to stop these online fences from selling their stolen goods.
But while the political intentions may be noble, the legislative tools supplied by SOPA and PIPA appear to be a club rather than scalpel.
I'm not a lawyer. I've perused both SOPA and PIPA and had a hard time translating the authentic legal and Web-technical gibberish into English.
But folks with bigger brains than me are afraid that SOPA and PIPA will enable the federal government to shut down sites operating perfectly legally, even if they merely inadvertently link to one of these rogue foreign Web sites, such as in a Google search result or an ad.
As a result, opponents say, Web sites will live in dystopian fear of Big Brother – a Justice Department with SOPA-imbued expanded powers swooping in and shutting offending Web sites down. Such draconian measures, anti-SOPAs say, would stifle innovation and growth of the one sector of our economy that exhibits healthy growth.
Anti-SOPA/PIPA forces such as Wikipedia aren't necessarily against fighting online piracy (although it's hard to tell from Wikipedia's statement explaining its 24-hour blackout), but the throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater legislative enforcement methods SOPA and PIPA prescribe.
As the White House statement notes (emphasis added):
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.
And therein lies the crux of the legislative problem: how do you enforce U.S. law against foreign-owned/operated Web sites?
Congress doesn't have a great track record of dealing with technology issues (it took 60 years for lawmakers to update the Telecommunications Act of 1936, and even then the 1996 bill fell short of dealing with the implications of the then-emerging Internet). So it's not a surprise how SOPA and PIPA seeks to kill a fly with an anvil.
In response to the wave of protests, Congressional action on SOPA has been delayed until early next month. Whether or not legislation that doesn't cripple Internet innovation emerges and satisfies the Internet companies that make the series of tubes go is still an open question.