Revenge of the Nerds: Websites Go Dark in Protest of Piracy Bills

7,000 venues participate

If you go to Wikipedia today, be forewarned. The free online encyclopedia, along with more than 7,000 others such as Reddit, Mozilla and WordPress, are blacked out in protest of two bills aimed at cracking down on foreign websites that infringe on U.S. intellectual property.

According to the organizers, it is the biggest blackout of Internet sites in U.S. history, and for some venues, it comes with a price.

"It is no small thing for a business, particularly an Internet business that makes its revenue through its website, to go dark for a day," wrote Harold Feld, the legal director of Public Knowledge in a blog post supporting the protest. 

The day of protest, or the "Internet Spring" as some are calling it, is the culmination of an aggressive campaign on the part of the Internet community to warn lawmakers and consumers that the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) in the Senate contain dangerous provisions that could irreparably harm the Internet and chill free speech. The blackout comes even as opponents have won a major victory in convincing the lawmakers behind the two bills to take out one of the most controversial provisions: domain name system blocking.

"Just removing the DNS provision will not give [lawmakers] enough political cover from the tech community," said Erik Martin, general manager of Reddit, during a press briefing Tuesday morning. Opponents would also like to see other provisions axed, such as private right of action and clearer definitions of what infringement means.

Despite the size of the blackout, some of the biggest Internet names will sit it out, such as Google, Twitter, Facebook and Yahoo. Instead of participating in the blackout and perhaps to protect its lucrative advertising revenue stream, Google blacked out its logo and links to a site that explains what all the fuss is about. Google has also spent some ad dollars, for example, sponsoring all the ads on the Wired site. 

"Like many businesses, entrepreneurs and Web users, we oppose these bills because there are smart, targeted ways to shut down foreign rogue websites without asking American companies to censor the Internet," Google said in a statement. 

The Motion Picture Association of America, one of the organizations leading the charge on legislation that would shut down foreign websites that steal copyright material, called Blackout Day a "dangerous gimmick" that contradicts the White House's plea that parties work together to come up with a solution to stop piracy.

"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," said former Sen. Chris Dodd, chairman and CEO of the MPAA, in a statement.

SOPA, for now, is halted in the House, but not for long. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, announced that markup will pick up in February.

Of more immediate concern to opponents is the Senate side where PIPA is very much alive. In an effort to sway select senators to push back on a Senate vote that would bring PIPA to the floor, Net Coalition, whose members include Google, Yahoo and Amazon, launched Tuesday a radio campaign in eight states and took out print ads in the Washington, D.C., press. The campaign runs through Jan. 22, stopping a day before Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he would bring an amended version of PIPA (without the DNS provision) to the floor.


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