January 19, 2012


Why Wikipedia's Blackout Sent the Wrong Message

NASHVILLE — In an act of protest, Wikipedia shut down Wednesday to protest proposed bills in Congress designed to curb Internet piracy. It's a dramatic gesture that will no doubt get attention, but may have an unintended effect.

Most of the big Internet companies are opposed to the Stop Online Piracy Act in the Senate and the Protect Intellectual Property Act in the House of Representatives. The bills were drafted in response to music- and movie-industry concerns that off-shore websites were stealing copyrighted content and selling it back to U.S. consumers.

Newseum Visitors Shed Light on 'Black Wednesday'

By Marta Elena Sparrow

WASHINGTON — Wikipedia's all-day blackout Jan. 18 on its English-language website was a firm reminder of how much we rely on the Internet for instant information and how the absence of that information — even for one day — affects our daily lives.

Some members of Congress dropped their support of the bills after negative backlashes from constituents.

Wikipedia, along with Google, Craigslist and other major websites, participated in the "Black Wednesday" protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) — two bills the companies believe would jeopardize free speech and censor the Web.

Proponents said the bills would create new jobs and protect copyright ownership by shutting down movie and music piracy websites.

Wikipedia was the only website to completely shut down its site for the day.

The blackout was addressed on the Newseum's Facebook page, where more than 200 people responded.

"I can survive a day without Wiki if it means we continue to have it censorship free!" said Melissa Williams Perner.

"Lame," said John Sharp. "Supposedly our freedoms are at stake here. Somehow I don't buy it. Large Internet companies saying SOPA and PIPA hurt economic development. (Look around my profession … the journalism profession.) Yep, a whole lotta economic development going on these days. Thanks Google!"

"I support SOPA," said Rusty Ray. "If you've ever had content stolen, or people making money illegally off your copyrighted content, you would too. Hiding behind foreign servers in countries that have lax laws and allow you to commit these acts is disgusting."

Most of the visitors to the Newseum agreed that the blackout was an effective way to bring public attention to the anti-piracy law. Laura Armstrong, 22, and a native Washingtonian, predicted it would gain support from the public.

"It's like the Occupy movement. Occupy the Internet," she said.

Tina Booth, a 42-year-old high school teacher on a field trip with her class from Ohio, added that the media attention to the blackout proved the protest achieved its goal.

"You're writing about it, aren't you," she said.

But she wondered if by going dark, Wikipedia had defeated its own purpose. By blocking access to its articles, including the ones about SOPA and PIPA, Wikipedia prevented people from finding more information about these bills, she said.

It's a real problem. The U.S. Constitution provides for copyright protection because authors and artists deserve to be compensated for their work. The creative community has been badly damaged by those who misappropriate others' creations.

Still, Congress's zeal to address these problems led to proposed legislation that is overbroad and gives government the right to block access to these so-called "rogue" sites. Many in the online community worry about giving government that much power and are concerned that content protected by the First Amendment would be suppressed along with pirated content.

In tweeting about the move, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales said, "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed, MLK. On Wednesday, Wikipedia demands." Many other sites have joined the blackout, including Reddit and Craigslist.

Other sites and online companies are using their web presence to speak out about the proposed legislation. Most notable is Google, which ran a black censorship strip across its logo.

Shutting down its English-language site in protest was Wikipedia's right; the First Amendment includes the right not to speak. Still, if Wikipedia, which reportedly serves more than 460 million people each month, and other prominent websites demonstrate their clout by shutting down for a single day, what is the most likely reaction?

Wales clearly hoped that people will think, "This must be a very bad law if all of these websites are going black today." More likely, though, is that a public increasingly reliant on websites for information will say, "Can they do that? How can they all get together and deprive us of our favorite sites? Shouldn't somebody do something about this so it doesn't happen again?"

Americans resent the idea of Big Brother, and many have a healthy suspicion about government and people in authority. But people also distrust the exercise of raw power, particularly in collaboration with others.

The odd thing is that this shutdown comes as both pieces of legislation are on the ropes. A massive backlash against the bills by the public and a wide range of organizations and industries means that these bills will not pass as written and there will be significant retooling.

If Wikipedia's blackout encourages high school students to turn to the Encyclopedia Britannica to research their school papers, that's not a bad thing. But in making the case for the free flow of information, speaking out beats blacking out.

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