Blackout Builds Movement Against Anti-Piracy Laws

Thousands of internet sites are taking part in a “blackout” protest against anti-piracy laws being discussed in Congress. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) has blacked out its logo, only the curl of a blue ‘g’ peaking out, while Wikipedia users are redirected to an ominous black screen that asks them to “Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge.”

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“The U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet,” reads Wikipedia’s English-language site, which includes a “learn more” link to an article that gives details on the two pieces of legislation — known as the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House — being considered by U.S. lawmakers.

Wikipedia asks that Americans call their representatives and tell them they oppose SOPA and PIPA, and any similar legislation. Users can look up the contact information for their local representatives simply by typing in their zip codes in a locator box on the main page.

The Google logo links to a page that explains how the two anti-piracy bills “would censor the Web and impose harmful regulations on American business.” The page offers a petition for readers to sign “urging Congress to vote NO on PIPA and SOPA before it is too late.”

Google argues that the anti-piracy bills, if passed into law, would essentially be “job killers,” as they “would stifle investment in Internet services, throttle innovation, and hurt American competitiveness,” by forcing law-abiding Internet companies to monitor everything users link to or upload or risk expensive and time-consuming litigation.

AOL (NYSE:AOL), eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY), Facebook, LinkedIn (NYSE:LNKD), Mozilla, Twitter, Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO), and Zynga (NASDAQ:ZNGA) are among companies that wrote a letter to congressto Congress saying these bills “pose a serious risk to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job-creation.”

Just to demonstrate to the public the effect that anti-piracy laws would have around the world, the news recommendation site Reddit, online magazine Boing Boing, software download service Tucows, and German hackers’ group The Chaos Computer Congress all removed access to their content.

U.S. news site Politico estimates that roughly 7,000 sites were involved in the protest by early Wednesday morning, but many of those sites do not host pirated content, and follow current copyright laws. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to advocating for the public interest in the digital realm, has outlined all the ways in which the anti-piracy bills, in their current forms, would damage free speech, Internet security, and online innovation.

Many Facebook users have changed their profile pictures to a censorship stamp. And though Facebook declined to comment on page blackouts, it referred users to a new page posted by its Washington division that says, “The bills contain overly broad definitions and create a new private cause of action against companies on the basis of those expansive definitions, which could seriously hamper the innovation, growth, and investment in new companies that have been the hallmarks of the internet.”

Today’s events coincide with news that the U.S. House of Representatives plans to resume work on SOPA next month, while the Senate is poised to bring PIPA to the floor on January 24.

Though the Obama administration issued a statement over the weekend saying that it would opposite PIPA and SOPA as written, and will not support any bill “that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet,” proponents in the House and Senate will likely try to revive the legislation, which would allow the Department of Justice and content owners to seek court orders against any site accused of “enabling or facilitating” piracy.

Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he is “committed to continuing to work with my colleagues in the House and Senate to send a bipartisan bill to the White House.” The Motion Picture Association of America will also likely continue its crusade.

Former senator and MPAA Chairman Chris Dodd has vigorously supported both SOPA and PIPA for some time and yesterday went on the record calling the blackouts “an abuse of power” as well as “dangerous and troubling,” in a statement he released to the public.

SOPA and PIPA are far from dead, and in an era of rampant online piracy but also high levels of unemployment, parties on both sides of the debate are unwilling to give up without a fight.

The Web community regards the laws as existential threats to the Internet; the American Civil Liberties Union says the laws would violate the First Amendment right to free speech; and the music and movie industries support the laws they say are meant to protect their own, private interests by protecting against copyright infringement.

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To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Knapp at staff.writers@wallstcheatsheet.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Damien Hoffman at editors@wallstcheatsheet.com