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SOPA/PIPA Protest ‘Blacks Out’ the Internets Today


Wikipedia has begun a 24-hour blackout to protest anti-piracy legislation under consideration in Congress.

CREDIT: Wikimedia Foundation

Perhaps you’ve heard about SOPA? PIPA? If not, Wikipedia, Reddit, lolcats, WordPress, and thousands of other websites want to make sure you’re listening—by shutting down their sites today.

Stunned by the loss of your beloved Wiki? A brief recap:

Two bills—the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the PROTECT IP Act (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011) or PIPA in the Senate—would, if passed, impose regulations on Internet access. The stated purpose of the bills is to crack down on “intellectual property” theft (meaning, mostly movies, music, and software), by blocking certain websites that facilitate unauthorized dissemination of protected content.

(On Campus Progress: The Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Internet Censorship Bills)

One of many objections to the bills is that the provisions for blocking access to a site are broad and ill-defined because of legislators’ poor understanding of how the Internet functions. There’s a good round-up of the bills and their implications over at Digital Trends. Lawyers, legal scholars, engineers, developers of the modern Internet, The White House, every tech company in the universe, and even the Tea Party Patriots have publicly denounced the bill with varying levels of skill and technical detail.  Meanwhile, centrist Democrats and Republicans and large media companies have staunchly defended it.

Today, Wikipedia and a slew of other sites are participating in #SOPAStrike by “blacking out” their sites and providing information on how SOPA (or PIPA) could affect you. (SOPA is being targeted because it was the more draconian of the two bills, but it was sidelined over the weekend. And even though PIPA is the primary threat now it was too late to . . . you know what, it’s all in the Digital Trends piece.)

The move to shutdown hundreds, maybe thousands, of websites has drawn applause, denunciation and quizzical shrugs far and wide.

(On Campus Progress: SOPA Update: Still Terrible, And Misinformation Makes It Worse)

It’s pretty clear that these bills are very bad legislation and that, while the Internet won’t be shut down completely if one of them passes, it would definitely create easily abused powers that would impact everyone using any sort of social media. And while there is an abundance of information about the bills and Internet censorship that I couldn’t possibly add anything helpful to, there are two notable qualities of the blackout itself worth mentioning.

One is that this is likely the first action of purely digital advocacy many people will encounter. While some earlier forms of advocacy have been digitized (like the ubiquitous petitions), few people have been involved in any sort of political action that was, itself, confined to the Internet or Internet functionality.

Groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks have made the news, and there have even been actions to shutdown target companies’ websites with popular participation, but that was marginal compared to the exposure Wikipedia’s current action will get. This is a unified statement by a large, centralized organization that hits people exactly where the legislation will. It’s a landmark advocacy tactic, even if it’s not particularly high impact or being leveraged very well.

The second thing to note is that #SOPAStrike will almost certainly spark consideration of the actual, concrete ways that the Internet affects our lives. Unlike the many pundits who constantly praise the Internet for “democratizing” communication and enabling new forms of activism and playing a role in the “Arab Spring,” this action will produce millions of small, concrete, mundane reminders of the ways that we depend on crowd-sourced information for our work, digital social platforms for facilitating our relationships, open-source tools for both recreation and labor, and the tiny distractions and tangents the Internet has made more commonplace. 

Any activist organizer will tell you that it takes multiple “touches” for someone to become engaged with an issue. That is, for consciousness-raising and education to be effective, people need to hear about something a dozen or more times for it to stick.

Odds are many people will experience multiple touches today, making the politics of the Internet—whether having to do with government censorship like SOPA/PIPA or net neutrality—much more real, immediate and urgent in many people’s lives. And that’s a great thing.

Sam Menefee-Libey is the LGBTQ Advocate with Campus Progress.

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