Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Chicago How do Internet companies stage a protest? By turning off their websites, of course.
Wikipedia, Boing Boing, Reddit and dozens of other lesser-known websites planned to go dark Wednesday in protest of proposed anti-piracy legislation in Congress that Internet companies maintain will encourage censorship of web content and harm technological innovation.
The bills in Congress, pushed by Hollywood studios and other big media companies, target websites that let users download pirated movies, TV shows, music and other material _ a violation of U.S. copyright law. Most of these sites are outside the United States, but the legislation would give the Justice Department and private companies tools to block them from American consumers.
For example, Google could be forced to drop an offending site from its search engine results. Or the government could go to court to stop a U.S. company that facilitates online payments to a suspected infringing site. Internet companies say they have neither the time nor the resources to monitor every link on a website or post by a user.
Google, Facebook, eBay and other new media companies also object to rogue sites but they have repeatedly said the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, in the House of Representatives goes too far, hurting investment, innovation and the open nature of the Internet. (They also are against the counterpart in the Senate, the Protect IP Act, or PIPA.) Some of the Web giants have run advertisements in major newspapers urging Washington lawmakers to rethink their approach.
Other websites are taking their opposition a step further by censoring themselves, which will vastly alter the Internet for some online users. Wikipedia, one of the Internet's largest sites for information and trivia, planned to shut down its English content for 24 hours. Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, warned students Tuesday by tweeting, "Do your homework early."
"Sites like Wikipedia and Reddit going dark is a pretty dramatic step, and it will certainly raise awareness of the issue among a large Internet population that may not have been paying attention to SOPA," said Stanford University law professor Mark Lemley. "One of the reasons it is such a powerful statement is that it means lost traffic and therefore lost money for large commercial sites. That may be why sites like Twitter haven't signed on."
Google won't join Wednesday's blackout either. The search engine said Tuesday that it will post a statement on its home page explaining its opposition to SOPA.
It's too early to say whether Wednesday's protest will kill the legislation, but the growing opposition has had some effect. The bill's chief sponsor in the House, Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, removed on Friday a controversial provision that would require Internet service providers to block foreign websites accused of selling illegal content to American consumers.
Meanwhile, a group of Senate Republicans have sought to delay votes on PIPA scheduled to start Jan. 24.
SOPA is still needed, Smith said in a statement Friday. "Congress must address the widespread problem of online theft of America's technology and products from foreign thieves," he said.
Proponents of the legislation, such as the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, say online piracy hurts American companies and destroys jobs. The MPAA estimates the U.S. loses more than 300,000 jobs, $16 billion in earnings and $58 billion in economic output each year because of pirated movies, music, software and video games.
Supporters of SOPA say the bill also would protect companies like Pfizer Inc. that aim to prevent counterfeiters of their drugs.
MPAA Chairman Christopher Dodd, the former senator from Connecticut, called out Wednesday's protest as a "stunt" that will hurt consumers.
"It is an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on them for information and use their services," Dodd said in a statement. "It is also an abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today."
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Even though the bills are aimed at rogue foreign websites, U.S. Internet companies are concerned that the legislation would pose significant risks for them because so many rely on user-generated content that is difficult to police.
Adrian Holovaty, the founder of Chicago-based community news site EveryBlock, said his site could be blocked for a post by a member.
SOPA becoming law "would put us in a position where if users posted something that some third party deemed to be inappropriate according to SOPA, our site would be at risk of getting taken down without due process, which is just insane," Holovaty said. "Anyone who knows anything about the Internet knows this is a ludicrous idea. It's just ridiculous."
EveryBlock, which is owned by MSNBC.com, is planning to put something on its website on Wednesday that will "probably be less extreme" than going completely dark, but will have "some mention of (SOPA) that you cannot miss," Holovaty said.
He also canceled his service with the Web-hosting company GoDaddy to protest the company's initial support of the legislation. (GoDaddy later reversed its stance.)
Fight for the Future, a nonprofit group that is helping organizing Wednesday's Internet protest, estimates that about 7,000 websites have signed up to participate. Some like Reddit and Boing Boing will take their sites down for 12 hours starting in the morning, while others will encourage political action.
DevBridge Inc., a Chicago-based Web development and design firm, will redirect all of its Web traffic Wednesday to a page where visitors can e-mail their local representative about SOPA, said President Aurimas Adomavicius.
"We're all believers of open source and sharing and community-type projects, and the Internet is the best facilitator for that," Adomavicius said. "Introducing a third party that can administer and decide for us what websites, services and content we can view poses great risks."