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Wikipedia goes dark as the SOPA debate rumbles on in the US

By | Published on Wednesday 18 January 2012


So, the English language edition of Wikipedia is off limits today as the world’s fifth most popular website stages a high profile protest against the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act in the US, even though it seems almost certain the congressmen behind that piece of legislation are already undertaking a radical rewrite following last week’s announcement from the White House that it would seek to block some of the proposed new anti-piracy laws.

As previously reported, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales first proposed taking Wikipedia’s English-language pages offline for a day last month, inspired by a similar move made by the Italian Wikimedia community in protest at new web legislation there. Though by the time Wales first suggested the black out, the wheels were already starting to fall off the SOPA bus, as those who oppose the measures it proposes became ever increasingly vocal, buoyed by support from some of America’s biggest web and tech companies.

The most controversial bits of SOPA relate to so called web-blocking, the establishment of a fast-track system whereby copyright owners could seek injunctions forcing internet service providers to block access to websites they believe primarily exist to infringe copyright. A similar system is already being launched in Spain, the Spanish parliament having passed laws to allow such a thing last year. In the UK, web-blocking was included in the Digital Economy Act, though with a ‘wait and see before we do this’ clause that all but removed the measures from the legislation. The coalition government has since expressed concerns about this particular anti-piracy measure.

Some, though, think that web-blocking is actually a more reasonable system for attempting to combat online piracy, being less expensive and time consuming than the three-strikes alternative, where warning letters are sent to individuals who file-share, with threats that their net access will be reduced if they continue to access unlicensed content sources. Web-blocking would require fewer individual actions, focusing on those who operate websites that prolifically infringe, or which enable others to commit infringement on a mass scale, rather than the millions of individuals who access such services.

Such infringing websites can be, and have been, successfully sued – and shut down – under existing copyright laws in most countries, but such litigation is time consuming and expensive, and shut down orders are hard to enforce when an infringing website is based outside a court’s jurisdiction. Web-block systems would speed up the litigation process, and, by forcing ISPs to block access to sites, overcome jurisdiction issues.

Of course everyone knows web-blocks can be circumvented by anyone with a little bit of tech know-how – and some infringing websites will publish guides to by-passing blocks on their blogs or social media profiles – but it seems likely more mainstream web-users wouldn’t be able or inclined to try to get around blocks, and would be less likely to discover infringing services in the first place while searching for specific artists via Google et al.

Opponents to web-blocking – as well as stressing that more hardline file-sharers can always circumvent such blocks – argue that systems like that proposed in SOPA give traditional rights owners the power to censor the internet, predicting that big content firms would abuse any such system to try to take smaller opponents offline. They also fear that the investment community would stop investing in sites that involve users contributing content, because they would fear that said users might upload copyright material, giving big rights owners a case to have the site shut down nder any fast-track web-block system.

Many of those who oppose SOPA cite past examples of big rights owners using existing US copyright law to have content taken down off user-upload sites which it then turned out the complainants didn’t actually own. One such incident they will almost certainly cite is the recent ‘Mega Song’ debacle, where Universal Music ordered YouTube remove a video made by MegaUpload; a company the music major accuses of copyright infringement, but a video in which the music firm had not copyright claim.

With opponents to SOPA being much more vocal than its supporters in recent weeks, the proposals were already starting to wobble in Congress, despite the best efforts of the music and movie industry’s lobbyists, though it was concerns expressed by the White House last week that will most likely force a rethink. But those who oppose the new anti-piracy laws say SOPA is far from dead in the water, while also pointing out a separate set of proposals called PIPA, that would introduce similar measures, is still on the table.

Hence Wales’s decision to go ahead with the Wikipedia black out, to rally more public support for the anti-SOPA campaign. Those trying to access English-language pages on the online encyclopaedia through a desktop browser today (the black-out doesn’t affect Wikipedia’s mobile site) get a one second glimpse of the page they are trying to access, before being presented with a notice that reads: “For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the US Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia”.

Users are then taken to a page outlining the concerns of Wales et al about SOPA and PIPA, including details of how Wikipedia readers – including those outside the US also affected by the strike – can take action. A number of other mainly US-based websites are also joining in with the black-out, while other web giants have put their name to an ad campaign opposing SOPA and PIPA under the heading “we stand together to protect innovation”.

Whatever your viewpoint on web-blocking – or the specifics of SOPA and PIPA – it’s hard to deny that those who oppose it all are winning the public debate at the moment, which must be irritating for the American music and movie industry execs who have spent months and in some cases years lobbying to get such anti-piracy measures onto the political agenda in Washington.

The Motion Picture Association Of America attempted a bit of a fight back last night by accusing Wikipedia et al of “staging stunts that punish their users” rather than “coming to the table to find solutions”, tough talking which might accurately represent the frustrations of those lobbying for tougher anti-piracy rules, but which is unlikely to win SOPA any new supporters.

The statement, from MPAA CEO Chris Dodd, reads thus: “Only days after the White House and chief sponsors of the legislation responded to the major concern expressed by opponents and then called for all parties to work cooperatively together, 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 to find solutions to a problem that all now seem to agree is very real and damaging”.

He continues: “It is an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on them for information and use their services. It is also an abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today. It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests”.

And he concludes: “A so-called ‘black-out’ is yet another gimmick, albeit a dangerous one, designed to punish elected and administration officials who are working diligently to protect American jobs from foreign criminals. It is our hope that the White House and the Congress will call on those who intend to stage this ‘black-out’ to stop the hyperbole and PR stunts and engage in meaningful efforts to combat piracy”.

The big content firms, such as those the MPAA represents, might have even more to worry about in the next week than just seeing their efforts on Capitol Hill untangle. Major peaceful protests often result in some more violent skirmishes on the peripheries, and word has it that the Anonymous group of hacktivists are planning to follow up the Wiki black-out with a few attacks on the servers of the big entertainment groups, with Sony seemingly a hot target once again.

Amongst the plans being discussed in the hacking community, according to Australian IT title SC Magazine, are to fill Sony’s websites with links to unlicensed BitTorrent feeds and the personal details of senior execs, and to alter any prices on Sony sites down to zero. Whether such chatter represents genuine intent – and whether the hackers are able to realistically achieve such things – remains to be seen. But next Monday seems to be currently set for the big hack.

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