Key Websites Black Out in Protest of SOPA

Joel Anderson  |

Lazy High School students with a term paper due Thursday may be in for a real shock as they begin their research: online encyclopedia Wikipedia is going dark on Wednesday in protest of two bills in front of congress that have the potential to permanently alter the online landscape.

It's perhaps fitting that one of the only things receiving bipartisan support in congress these days has become a source of such controversy outside of Washington, but opponents and supporters of the two bills have been lining up to put in their two cents.

In essence, H.R. 3261,  the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), is designed to protect intellectual property on the internet. It and its senate counterpart, S. 968, the Protect IP Act (PIPA), would give the Department of Justice the power to shut down websites that included copywritten content without permission. The bill would provide the DOJ with sweeping powers to strike at financial transactions and internet services in an effort to stop "rogue" websites from including or linking to pirated material.

As such, a wave of voices are championing the bill as a means of protecting intellectual property and supporting those industries that depend on it. Supporters of SOPA include large corporations such as Disney (DIS), Nike (NKE), CBS (CBS) and many others.  The bills appear to have bipartisan support, with 40 senators signing on as cosponsors of PIPA. The bill's biggest champions, though, appear to come from the entertainment industry, including major motion picture makers and record labels which want to stop piracy from eating into their profits. "More than 2.2 million hard-working, middle-class people in all 50 states depend on the entertainment industry for their jobs and many millions more work in other industries that rely on intellectual property," Michael O'Leary of the Motion Picture Association of America said in a statement. "For all these workers and their families, online content and counterfeiting by these foreign sites mean declining incomes, lost jobs and reduced health and retirement benefits."

While SOPA and PIPA are wildly popular among those holding copyrights and members of congress, a chorus of voices have been raised in protect of what is viewed as a positively draconian new set of powers being made available to unilaterally take down websites believed to be displaying pirated material. Holding sites responsible could cripple user-generated forums like YouTube, and might also seriously hinder the ability to operate for thousands of others. Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley, and Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn cosigned a letter to congress protesting the bill, and Google (GOOG) co-founder Sergey Brin made a December Google+ posting that read “While I support their goal of reducing copyright infringement (which I don’t believe these acts would accomplish), I am shocked that our lawmakers would contemplate such measures that would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world.”

The level of protest was amped up another notch when Wikipedia announced that it would be going dark on January 18th to protest the bills, joining Reddit and dozens of other sites in closing down services for the day. Wikipedia, though, gets 25 million users a day and should speak loudly through its silence. While it's unclear whether or not the strategy will prove effective, the controversy brewing around the issue appears to cut to core ideas about where intellectual property rights stop and free speech begins. "We need to ensure that there is a balance," said Rebecca MacKinnon, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. "If you want to guarantee 100% accountability and zero infringement, you are going to live in North Korea."

The opponents of the bill also argue that it would stifle creativity and entrepreneurship. "The American dream is still alive and kicking," said Reddit's Alexis Ohanian. "There is no other industry in the world where you can take an investment that's less than the cost of a Ford Focus, give it to some college students and create a $1bn business." Alexis further stated that in a January 4th interview with Bloomberg that "If SOPA or PIPA were in effect, the success of [Reddit] simply could not have happened. And that goes for any user generated website. Under these laws they simply would have been shut down before a few weeks have gone by. And all this innovation that we love and enjoy just would have never have happened, not to mention all the jobs that would have been lost."

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