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Wikipedia Blacked Out Over U.S. Laws

  • RFE/RL

The world has grown used to "Day Of Rage" protests, where crowds spill into the streets to call for political changes.

But a "Day of Darkness" is something new.

Wikipedia, the popular collaborative website, has embarked on a 24-hour blackout of its English-language version.

The shutdown is aimed at focusing attention on proposed legislation now before the U.S. Congress that many Internet providers say threatens to dramatically increase the government's ability to control their medium.

And because so much of the Internet -- particularly its largest search engines and social-networking sites -- is based in the United States, the providers warned the legislation could also affect websites worldwide.

In essence, the legislation pits the interests of two powerful industries against one another.

On one side is the entertainment industry, which for decades has sought tougher legislation to reduce piracy of their material on the Internet. Film and music companies say they lose billions of dollars a year as Internet users pirate copyrighted material by downloading it for free.

On the other side is the industry of cyberspace. It is a world that thrives on innovation and freedom of information. It also is a world that generally does not take kindly to either outside industries or the government trying to police it.

What the film and music industry wants to do is shift the burden of responsibility for cracking down on pirates from law-enforcement agencies over to Internet companies themselves. And one of the ways it wants to do that is by making search engines limit access to overseas websites that traffic in pirated, counterfeit, or stolen content.

In recent past months, the antipiracy drive has resulted in legislators in both houses of the U.S. Congress proposing bills that could come up for votes later this year.

But even as the bills are being written, the Internet companies have launched a counterattack. The companies say the proposed legislation would give the government too much leeway to put restrictions on websites without going through the judicial system.

That, the so-called internauts say, would undermine innovation and free speech rights and compromise the functioning of the Internet.

Wikipedia page informing readers of its English-language version on January 18 of its 24-hour blackout.

Wikipedia page informing readers of its English-language version on January 18 of its 24-hour blackout.

Olivia Solon, an editor with British-based, a magazine about digital culture, says that under the proposed legislation authorities could ask search engines to remove links to copyright-infringing sites. That would effectively "block" them to users. And that, she says, would punish the many for the actions of a few.

"The problem with the blocking is that [there] could be a huge blogger network that contains hundreds of thousands of blogs, but if a foreign website happens to have one or two articles that have infringing content then theoretically the U.S. could block all of the blogs within that network as a result of the one or two pieces of infringing content. And they can only complain once the site has been blocked," Solon says. "There is no process in place to be able to argue against these complaints before the site gets taken down."

She adds that the proposed legislation's main technique to tackle infringing sites would be to cut off funding mechanisms like PayPal, Google Adwords, and Visa to them.

Solon says the Internet providers would prefer film and music companies solve piracy by being more creative with how they market their own products.

"Most people are saying this is dealing with the problem the wrong way around," Solon says. "The problem is that the copyright owners have not created an alternative that is better than piracy. They are spending so much time trying to desperately cling on to their old business models -- you know, the DVD market, the CDs -- when actually what they should be doing is creating a really wonderful alternative that users prefer to downloading pirated content."

So far, the protest from the Internet companies appears to be gaining ground.

As Wikipedia and at least one social media site, Reddit, vowed to black out their sites, the U.S. White House signaled that it, too, wanted a voice in the debate.

The White House said in a post on its blog over the weekend that it wouldn't support "legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cyber security risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet."

The White House also said it would soon host a conference call among opponents of the existing bill.

Written by Charles Recknagel based on RFE/RL and agency reporting

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