Anti-SOPA protests black out wide swathes of the web


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Need to look up a fact on Wikipedia? Want to burn a bit of the workday browsing reddit's library of links, memes and discussions? Feel like taking a look at how Google ( GOOG ) customized its logo this week?

For the duration of Wednesday, January 18, web users around the country will be unable to do any of those things. 

To protest the House of Representative's Stop Online Piracy Act , dubbed SOPA, numerous sites are temporarily shutting off, removing functionality or altering their appearance to symbolize the impact they believe the legislation will have on the free, open internet. Supporters of the bill - which is sponsored by Texas Republican Lamar Smith and backed by the MPAA and the RIAA - contend that it is a necessary measure to protect the intellectual property of American copyright holders from musicians to filmmakers to software developers.

The opponents, who comprise a nearly comprehensive list of major tech companies and websites, contend that it's a massive overreach which threatens the fabric of the internet. The various protests aim to show the American public what a future with SOPA might look like. The main problem with the bill, they say, is that it gives the unprecedented power to the copyright holders to shut down sites they claim violate their rights.

In December, I discussed one of the earliest demonstrations of the influence the anti-SOPA lobby can wield, after a reddit-inspired consumer boycott of GoDaddy forced that company to reverse course. This protest is far larger in scope, and the impact could hit much harder. People who have no interest in technology legislation or the geekier corners of the internet will notice that the Google logo is obscured by a black censorship bar or that they can't update their blogs because Wordpress is locked down. High school students around the country will panic as they realize they'll have to turn in papers tomorrow without the helping hand of Wikipedia.

Obviously, SOPA's supporters fired back at the web with both barrels, as the likes of former Senator Chris Dodd and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called the protest an "abuse of power" and "a gimmick." Dodd is now the chairman of the MPAA.

Google, for its part, posted on its official blog  that "PIPA & SOPA will not stop piracy ... Pirate sites would just change their addresses in order to continue their criminal activities. There are better ways to address piracy than to ask U.S. companies to censor the Internet." As an alternative, Google supports the OPEN Act, a different copyright protection bill which doesn't introduce new powers or pose the same threat to internet service providers or search engines.

One of the biggest problems faced by SOPA's supporters is the enemy they face. They want to take on one of the most adaptable demographics on the planet with the lumbering speed of the U.S. legislative process. Pirate sites now upload full-quality, high-definition copies of films just moments after the theatrical release - sometimes even before - and trying to shut down torrent sites is like playing the world's biggest game of digital Whack-a-Mole. Despite increasingly invasive and rigorous efforts by software and media companies to lock down DVDs and video games with copyright protection, even the most dedicated solutions are cracked a few hours to a few weeks later, leaving the pirates free to use and share the content unhindered while increasing the hassle for legitimate buyers. Congress simply can't draft legislation fast enough to keep up with the international community of pirates.

The whole debate might be more or less moot, at least until the dust settles from the 2012 elections. President Barack Obama swept to victory in 2008 on a wave of support from a young, energized and web-savvy generation. Google and other web companies are among his biggest campaign contributors (though Hollywood and the media lobby also contributed a great deal). Last week, the White House issued a statement which read, in part, "New legislation must be narrowly targeted only at sites beyond the reach of current U.S. law, cover activity clearly prohibited under existing U.S. laws, and be effectively tailored, with strong due process and focused on criminal activity."

Though it's not a promise to veto SOPA or its sister bill, the Protect IP act, it's pretty close.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

This article appears in: News Headlines , Technology , US Markets

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