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.

Gary Cameron/REUTERS
Wikipedia webpage in use on a laptop computer is seen in this photo illustration taken in Washington, January 17, 2012.

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.

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."

This weekend, the White House issued a statement opposing any legislation that curtails free speech, while major  entertainment companies such as Sony and Time-Warner continue to push for SOPA's passage.

Though somewhat more conciliatory than in recent months, the Motion Picture Association of America as well as the US Chamber of Commerce came out in favor of tough anti-piracy legislation at the State of the Net conference in Washington, D.C., Tuesday. 

In statements reported by Politico, Steve Tepp, chief intellectual property counsel with the Global Intellectual Property Center, an arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said at the conference that the industry is now "at a place where a provision that has generated the most consternation, the most uproar" has been removed from SOPA and PIPA. "And what we're left with is a very narrow, carefully tailored, narrowly targeted bill that addresses the worst of the worst online thieves, whether it's the Senate or the House bill"

But Mr. Tepp warned, "In order to slay this dragon, we need more than a fly swatter." 

Peter Toren, an intellectual property and computer crimes lawyer, says the two sides are dismayingly far apart. “This is more like kids throwing sand in a sandbox then two sides working together for a real compromise,” he says.

The fight will not resolve quickly or easily, says Mark Tatge, visiting professor of journalism at the Pulliam Center for Contemporary Media at DePauw University. This goes to the very soul of the Internet culture and future, he says, because it sets up two  fundamentally opposing paradigms: Is the Internet a venue where people share and express ideas and is open and collaborative? Or, is it something that is controlled by corporations who decide what people should be able to view because it will bring them profits?”

Meanwhile, the list of those going dark to protest SOPA on Wednesday continues to grow. Reddit and Boing Boing will shut down and the Internet Archive has announced it will also be down for 12 hours.

With more than 20 million articles written solely by volunteers, Wikipedia is the sixth-largest site on the Web, behind only Google, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo, and the Chinese language search engine Baidu.

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