Piracy bills spark online backlash

January 19, 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Wikipedia went dark, Google blotted out its logo and other popular websites planned protests  Wednesday to voice concern over legislation in the U.S. Congress intended to crack down on online piracy.

Wikipedia shut down the English version of its online encyclopedia for 24 hours to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate version, the Protect IP Act (PIPA).

Google placed a black redaction box over the logo on its much-visited U.S. home page to draw attention to the bills, while social news site reddit and the popular Cheezburger humor network shut down later in the day.

The draft legislation has won the backing of Hollywood, the music industry, the Business Software Alliance, the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But it has come under fire from digital rights and free-speech organizations for allegedly paving the way for U.S. authorities to shut down websites accused of online piracy, including foreign sites, without due process.

“For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history,” Wikipedia said in a message posted at midnight on its darkened website.

“Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia.”

In Costa Rica, blogging platform Ticoblogger joined the protest by limiting blog content throughout the day during users’ first visits. 

“A lot of people believe that those who are against SOPA and PIPA favor online piracy. Three years ago, Ticoblogger included in its terms of service that the website would not accept content that violates copyright laws. But we do believe that this law threatens freedom of expression,” Ticoblogger’s founder José Medrano said. 

Medrano urged Ticos to become aware of how the U.S. bills could affect content that users access online. He also warned that Costa Rica could develop its own version of SOPA. 

The founders of Google, Twitter, Wikipedia, Yahoo! and other Internet giants said in an open letter last month the legislation would give the U.S. government censorship powers “similar to those used by China, Malaysia and Iran.”

“We oppose these bills because there are smart, targeted ways to shut down foreign rogue websites without asking American companies to censor the Internet,” a Google spokesman said Tuesday.

Ben Huh, founder of Cheezburger network, said on his Twitter feed that his 58 sites, which include icanhascheezburger.com, FAIL Blog and The Daily What, would observe the Wednesday blackout.

NY Tech Meetup, an entrepreneurial group that counts more than 20,000 members, held a demonstration to protest the legislation outside the Manhattan offices of New York senators later in the day.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales announced plans to shut down the site in a message on his Twitter feed.

“Student warning! Do your homework early. Wikipedia protesting bad law on Wednesday!” Wales said.

“This is going to be wow. I hope Wikipedia will melt phone systems in Washington on Wednesday. Tell everyone you know!” he said.

Volunteer-staffed Wikipedia turned 11 years old on Jan. 15 and boasts more than 20 million articles in 282 languages.

The White House expressed concern about the anti-online piracy bills in a statement over the weekend.

“While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet,” it said.

“Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small,” the White House said.

News Corp. chief executive Rupert Murdoch, who backs the U.S. legislation, accused the “blogosphere” of “terrorizing many senators and congressmen who previously committed” to supporting it.

“Nonsense argument about danger to Internet. How about Google, others blocking porn, hate speech, etc? Internet hurt?” he wrote on the popular micro-blogging website.

Tico Times reporter Karla Arias Alvarado contributed to this story.

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