INTERNET: Major websites to black out in protest of anti-piracy bill

INTERNET • BY NICK FOLEY, CNS

Devoted users of Wikipedia, Reddit, WordPress and Minecraft could be in for a surprise Wednesday as they log on to their trusted favorites: These sites, and as many as 5,000 others, will shut down for 12 to 24 hours.

Fight For the Future, a nonprofit organization devoted to maintaining freedom of expression on the Internet, organized the strike of, by its count, nearly 5,000 websites in opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act, according to Fight For the Future Founder Tiffiniy Cheng.

Rep. Lamar Smith, D-Texas, introduced the bill in October to keep third-party websites from stealing original content and then reaping the profits. This loss of money costs the economy $100 billion annually, according to a news release on Smith’s website.

The strike is slated to be the largest online strike in digital history, according Cheng, who said the bill — which also exists in the Senate as “Protect-IP Act” — threatens the existence of the Internet as an open, deregulated network of websites dedicated solely to the people.

“The Internet is and will remain the platform for freedom of speech,” Cheng said. “This is about who controls the Internet, and it shouldn’t be corporate copyright holders.”

The movement began Nov. 16 with “American Censorship Day,” in which websites emblazoned anti-SOPA messages on their main pages, and quickly gained momentum as the bill moved its way through Congress.

Now, as senators ready themselves for the final vote Tuesday, some websites claim the bill’s effects could change the scope of the Internet by forcing sites to adhere to copyright laws they consider unreasonable.    Yet according to a statement by Smith, such laws are necessary to punish criminals for their acts.

“There is a vast virtual market online run by criminals who steal products and profits that rightly belong to American innovators,” Smith said on his website. “The bill’s broad bipartisan support shows Congress’ commitment to combating rogue sites and ensuring that profits go to American innovators, not criminals who steal our products and damage our economy.”

The bill, HR 3261, has 13 sponsors: eight Republicans and four Democrats.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., was one of the original sponsors of the Senate version of the bill, but announced in a news release Friday he would not vote for PIPA “as currently written on the Senate floor.”

Cardin said he hopes the bill can be revamped to prosecute copyright infringement crimes while still maintaining Internet freedom.

“I believe that we can find a way to balance the very freedoms inherent to the online world with protections from illegal activity solely designed to steal or cheat,” Cardin said in the statement.

Users who log on to mainstays such as Wikipedia and Reddit will be unable to access regular content. They will, instead, be greeted with information about the bill and contact information for senators.

Cheng said that while this presents an inconvenience to users, it’s representative of what could happen if the bill passes.

“There will be some inconveniences…. and I think it’s actually a show of how these bills could affect everybody’s daily lives,” she said.

However, University of Maryland public policy professor William Nolte, who teaches a cyber policy course, said while the Web strike may garner immediate attention, it may not be as significant as webmasters hope.

“I suspect even something as popular as Wikipedia — people’s lives will go on if they can’t access it for 12 to 24 hours,” Nolte said. “You shut down Wikipedia for a day, you might get Brian Williams talking about it.”

Williams is the anchor of “NBC Nightly News.”

Reddit General Manager Erik Martin said he hopes the strike will signal how dangerous the bill could be to thousands of websites if enacted.

“I hope they realize how serious a threat this is to our business, and that we’d be willing to shut down our site for a day,” Martin said.    He added that the bill’s unclear, “poorly written” language could lead to misinterpretation and overuse.

“It’s going to be abused — abused for free speech, abused for competitive issues,” he said. “If you start adding a lot of compliance issues with severe penalties if you get it wrong, people aren’t going to invest in websites like Facebook and Twitter.”

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