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Wikipedia blackout: Why even supporters question anti-SOPA move

The Wikipedia blackout is intended to spotlight the value of open access to information on the Internet, but also underlies how fractious the move is, drawing fire from both critics and supporters.

By Staff writer / January 17, 2012

Wikipedia webpage in use on a laptop computer is seen in this photo illustration taken in Washington, January 17, 2012. Wikipedia, the popular community-edited online encyclopedia, will black out its English-language site for 24 hours to seek support against proposed U.S. anti-piracy legislation that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said threatens the future of the Internet.

Gary Cameron/REUTERS

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As the fracas over the proposed federal anti-piracy legislation known as SOPA heats up this week, the open-source encyclopedia website, Wikipedia, says it will shut down for 24 hours, beginning midnight Tuesday to protest what the website warns is a threat to free speech.

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Instead of its usual homepage, users who navigate to the English-language Wikipedia Wednesday will find directions for reaching local members of Congress to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said in a statement Monday, he hopes this "will melt phone systems in Washington."

A House subcommittee was scheduled to prepare SOPA for a vote later this month. The Senate had planned a vote on PIPA even sooner. Now, it appears both votes could be delayed as some supporters in the House and Senate suggest they may be open changes in the bill.

The Wikipedia blackout is intended to spotlight the value of free and open access to information on the Internet, but it also underlies how fractious the issue is as it draws fire from both critics and supporters.

“SOPA is an unconstitutional, dangerous waste of time – that is, a violation of the First Amendment that won't achieve its ends, and could cripple the Internet with its provision that sites could be liable for any pirated material posted on their online premises,” says Fordham University media professor Paul Levinson via e-mail. No site can possibly police every post – text or video – for adherence to copyright, he says.  

But Wikipedia should not shut down to point out the dangers of SOPA, he says. “Wikipedia is a source of information, a site which by its very existence stands up to ignorance in Congress. It won't be able to make this point on Wednesday when it's shut down." It will only inconvenience millions of people, who rely on its services, he says.

But dramatic gestures are needed, say students and professors at the School for Information Studies at Syracuse University in New York, who plan to shut down their site on Wednesday in support of the Wikipedia move. Sharing information by Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks are at the heart of the Internet’s role in communication, innovation, as well as social change, says Anthony Rotolo, assistant professor at the iSchool.

Wikipedia is not a social network, but relies on a network of volunteers to update its website through its open-source platform. If SOPA were to pass, Wikipedia could be held responsible for any information added to its website.

“The most troubling aspects of the proposed legislation are the provisions that would allow sites to be shut down if accused of sharing copyrighted information,” Professor Rotolo says. While it is important to protect copyrighted information, SOPA "would dramatically change the way the Internet works, and for the first time put the government, and potentially special interests, in control,” he adds.

Syracuse iSchool student Meghan  Dornbrock, who is working on her master’s degree in library science and information, says the debate reveals a “profound”  generation gap in understanding and knowledge about the Internet.  “Congress doesn’t understand the information sharing that is so important to the growth of the Internet,” she says. “The Wikipedia shutdown will be huge, because we use it for everything.” Though, she says, it may not have a huge impact on her campus Wednesday because students are only "two days into the term and most people aren’t doing papers yet."

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