Wikipedia blackout planned as protests escalate over SOPA, PIPA

The Takeaway

The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act are polarizing Congress and the business community.

Big movie and music companies have lined up in support of the controversial legislation, while Silicon Valley and the high tech leaders are lined up in opposition. And they’re using perhaps their most powerful tool to let their customers and users know how they feel: they’re shutting down.

On Wednesday, Wikipedia, news and discussion site Reddit, blog BoingBoing and the Cheezbuger network of comedy sites will all go dark, to alert their users to what they say are the dangers of SOPA and PIPA — bills winding through the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

At their core, the twin bills attempt to rein in online piracy on the part of websites and companies that aren’t subject to U.S. Copyright Law. Most everyone agrees that’s a laudable goal. The divergence, however, comes over the tactics. Various versions of the bills, which are being extensively reworked in the face of serious opposition, would have required changes in how the Domain Name System works, punished those who link to a site that in any way publishes copyrighted material illegally and blacklisted from search results websites the attorney general believes to be copyright violators.

Ryan Singel, the editor of Threat Level — Wired magazine’s privacy and security blog, said his magazine is strongly opposed to the bills, though they’ve decided not to make a full blackout either.

“Anyone visiting our homepage on Wednesday will definitely see our position,” he said.

Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit.com, said the largest issue with SOPA is that the bill’s actions won’t have any measurable action on stopping piracy.

“It’s a lot of destruction without any success in the process,” he said. “There’s way too many jobs at stake. A college student with an engineering degree can probably look at six figures in this industry because programming talent is in such demand. And these are the innovators that are creating all the great value and all the great innovation in this country today. We can’t risk seeing that destroyed.”

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The legislation has pitted Hollywood, against Silicon Valley. And it’s ensnared politicians of all stripes as well. Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter recently to lambast President Barack Obama as well as Google for what he says is their support of online pirates. Murdoch’s News Corp. is a major backer of the bills.

Singel said the bill sounds like a nice piece of legislation, in theory, if you don’t know very much about tech.

“One of the most controversial provisions would allow the attorney general to order ISPs — Comcast, AT&T… — to (stop) people from visiting a website,” he said.

As an example, Singel said, if Disney wanted to shutdown The Pirate Bay, a well-known file sharing site, it could go to a judge and have an order issued requiring every ISP around the country to lie to its customers and tell them that a website that is operational doesn’t even exist.

That involves a change to the DNS of the Internet, essentially the phone book that connects individual computers with websites all over the world.

Ohanian said the legislation also introduces significant compliance costs for U.S. websites.

“What’s incredibly frustrating for new companies, for innovators, for entrepreneurs, the idea of simply complying from a legal standpoint is enough to get something shot down before it even gets started,” he said. “That means, the next YouTube, the next Twitter, the next Reddit, the next Facebook just doesn’t happen.”

Ohanian said he in no way supports copyright theft or IP theft, but this isn’t the answer. Plus, he said, the Internet has proven time and again, with iTunes and Steam and Netflix, that if a copyright holder can provide a better, easier service than the pirates, they will win. But legislation and litigation rarely work.

“You can actually make a lot of money in the process,” he said.

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