PIPA/SOPA web blackout
Wednesday, January 18 2012
Today was the day chosen by a number of websites to protest the draconian censorship laws known as PIPA and SOPA, which had been quickly winding their ways through congress on their way to an inevitable signing by President Obama. In the past, such laws always sailed through without resistance. They had the enormous copyright lobbies at their back, and resistance tended to be geeky and fractured. Congress delights in their ignorance of technology and just wants to do whatever the loudest lobbies want them to do.
But something different has happened with PIPA and SOPA. Perhaps aided by better social networking tools, anti-PIPA/SOPA forces managed to achieve a number of victories in the run-up to what had been widely expected as a speedy passage. On Reddit.com, they managed to organize a successful boycott of Godaddy.com, getting them to abandon their support for PIPA/SOPA. And then they funneled a significant amount of money to a Democratic challenger to Paul Ryan, forcing the Republican Wunderkind to do the same. As tigers go, the supporters of PIPA and SOPA were seeming somewhat papery.
Against all expectations, even before today's protest, the tide had turned so decisive against PIPA and SOPA that even their most ardent backers were scrambling to excise the most embarrassingly-appalling of their movie-industry-dictated provisions (ones that would have forced people to use offshore DNS servers to get valid routes to sites deemed to have "infringing" content).
Today's blackout was done in different ways by different sites. Google, which really helped their street-cred bona fides by participating at all, did nothing more than black out their logo, as if it has been censored. Wikipedia actually blacked out their entire site, covering result pages with a black banner, rendering it invisible to technologically-unsophisticated visitors (appending ?banner=none to the URL made a page visible once more). Boingbong.net took it a step further, closing their site down for the day and sending viewers on to write their congresscreatures. There was no way to view content there even for the technologically sophisticated. DailyKos.com pestered its visitors with an overlay that kept getting in the way as well as the random censorship of words, the latter of which went away as soon as you took the time to email your state's senators.
Some people on Facebook, erroneously believing that PIPA and SOPA had already been defeated, thought Wikipedia and Google were going too far, that they were unnecessarily wading into a political fight about which they should have remained neutral. But part of what PIPA and SOPA hope to do is regulate the ability to link in such a way that a computer-generated database of links (what Google is) would be hard to construct. If Hollywood can force us to watch actually-inaccurate FBI warnings at the beginning of DVDs (and force DVD manufacturers to make devices that prevent us from skipping through them), then Google should be allowed to black out their logo and tell people to send emails to their representatives in support of their useful business model.
The most amusing effect of the "internet blackout" was among teenagers trying to so their homework. Unlike the community at boingboing.net, they'd been completely oblivious as PIPA and SOPA ominously loomed. For all these teenagers knew, the internet had been created in its existing form six thousand years ago by Almighty God and would never be any different from the way it is now. Judging by their tweets and Facebook postings, seeing Wikipedia blacked out the way it was today unsettled them like a fossil iPhone in Cambrian rock would unsettle me. And that's all for the good. The great thing about today's blackout is that it reached out to the oblivious, people who (judging by their posts) couldn't even be bothered to read the few sentences on the blacked-out Wikipedia pages. It grabbed them by their lip piercings, and shouted into their faces: "Wake up and get involved! You can't take the richness of the mediasphere for granted. There are forces who want to turn your computer and cellphone into media consumption boxes."
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