Web Blackout Protest Impacts Copyright Debate in Washington

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Emergency NY Tech Meetup Advance Story

by Glynn Wilson

You’ve got to love it when the public gets involved in the Democratic process.

Thousands of Websites and who knows how many tens of thousands of people who get their news through the Internet took a day off Wednesday to protest two bills making their way through Congress without enough reasoned debate or time and effort to educate the public.

According to The Hill newspaper, a source for news we trust and use on a regular basis, it was “an unprecedented display of political muscle,” a day when thousands of Websites “went dark” to protest two Internet piracy bills, the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate’s Protect IP Act.

The protests got the attention of Web users, and could get a real debate going on in this country on how we use this new technology to educate the public.

The term “SOPA” and “SOPA blackout” were among the top 10 trending search terms on Google, and a black image with white text saying “STOP SOPA” was all over Facebook, which declined to join the blackout but posted a page on its D.C. site calling the bills “not the right solution” because of the “collateral damage they would cause to the Internet.”

While the world’s most popular search engine Google was still available on the Web, the company pasted a black box standing for censorship over its iconic logo. If you click on the box it re-directs you to a petition urging Congress to kill the legislation targeting online piracy, claiming the bills would “censor the Web and impose harmful regulations on American businesses.”

Wikipedia, the sixth most popular Website in the world, shut down its English site, posting in its place a black page carrying the headline: “Imagine a world without free knowledge.” It is an ominous warning that the legislation “could fatally damage the free and open Internet.” There you can add your zip code and contact your representatives and senators to express your views.

The legislation, if passed and signed by the president, would allow the Justice Department and copyright holders to demand that search engines delete links to sites deemed to be “dedicated” to copyright infringement, according to The Hill, although my sources in Washington say the bill will not impact sites in the United States, only abroad. Ad networks and payment processors would be prohibited from doing business with the overseas sites.

Consumer groups and Web companies warn the bills would stifle innovation and censor free speech, saying they would impose an unreasonable burden on Websites to police user-generated content and could lead to legitimate sites getting shut down and put out of business.

The protests are designed to stop the drastic legislation in its tracks. The action was already having an impact on Wednesday as some members of Congress started changing their positions in the face of phone and e-mail contact from their constituents, and threats to withdraw funding from campaign donors.

A Florida Senator and a rising star in the Republican Party, Sen. Marco Rubio, dropped his support for the bill and said lawmakers should take the time to craft new legislation that addresses the concerns “raised by all sides.”

“I have been a co-sponsor of the PROTECT IP Act because I believe it’s important to protect American ingenuity, ideas and jobs from being stolen through Internet piracy, much of it occurring overseas through rogue websites in China,” Rubio said in Facebook post. “As a senator from Florida, a state with a large presence of artists, creators and businesses connected to the creation of intellectual property, I have a strong interest in stopping online piracy that costs Florida jobs. However, we must do this while simultaneously promoting an open, dynamic Internet environment that is ripe for innovation and promotes new technologies.”

Six Republican senators wrote Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada urging him to postpone a vote on the legislation, but he vowed to bring it up for a vote anyway.

“We have increasingly heard from a large number of constituents and other stakeholders with vocal concerns about possible unintended consequences of the proposed legislation, including breaches in cybersecurity, damaging the integrity of the Internet, costly and burdensome litigation, and dilution of First Amendment rights,” Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said in the letter.

Wired, a technology magazine, joined the blackout along with Craigslist, Mozilla, MoveOn.org, Alternet.org, etc.


According to Birmingham, Alabama native Brooks Boliek, who has covered the online piracy issue for many years and now writes for Politico, both bills moving through Congress are a “drastic overreach” fueled by the impact of big money on politics in the nation’s capital.

While no news organization is covering what the Associated Press thinks about this bill, which could affect smaller news sites like this one as the wire service continues its aggressive campaign to protect the print newspaper industry against bloggers, the real battle here is between the network consumer electronics industry and the big content providers, which spend a massive amount of money lobbying Congress to try and stop movie and music piracy of American intellectual property in China, Russia and even Europe.

“This is not going to shut down Wikipedia. The problem is,” Boliek said, that lobbying outfits such as the Motion Picture Association of America have won so many battles over the online providers the past few years that they are engaging in an all out fight “to get a scalp for their belt.”

Like a lot of issues related to new technology, there are two sides to the story, and the general public doesn’t really have enough time or information to make an intelligent decision about what side to take.

On one hand, the U.S. government has been putting pressure on China and other countries to stop shutting down news and protest Websites, but on the other, they have been trying to shut down companies in China and other countries that steal and illegally sell pirated copies of movies and music CDs, for example.


While our editorial position takes sides with the protesters for slowing down this legislation so we can have more of a debate about what U.S. policy should be on these complicated issues, we also support the rights of movie producers, musicians, photographers, videographers, journalists and others to preserve their copyright rights to original content, to intellectual property.

We recently engaged in a battle to protect a piece of our own original intellectual property, for example, when Facebook users went about stealing willy-nilly our original, copyrighted image of Alabama football coach Nick Saban. Even a bunch of people who claimed to be Christians thought it was their right to steal the image for their Facebook pages after Alabama won the national college football championship over LSU.

This is a very real problem and the public needs to get itself educated on these issues so we can strike a balance between online First Amendment freedoms of free speech and press verses the rights of artists, musicians, photographers, journalists and print and Web publishers to make a living using the Web Press.

If we are going to make a difference here, we are going to have to preserve the ability to create an economy to support our rights so that people who actually know what they are talking about can get paid to engage in this business. Individuals and groups who think “citizen journalists,” anonymous bloggers or people stealing and sharing media content with Social Networking is the answer to furthering democratic ideals are just mistaken in their beliefs, in our view.

The type and quality of information people get on these issues is absolutely critical to forming the right policies as we move forward in the Internet Age. Inaccurate information put out too speedily by people who have no education, experience or other basis to be trusted for news judgement does more harm than good.

We have already been through crisis after crisis when cable television news often did just that — jump to hasty conclusions about stories before any facts are actually reported. Is this roller-coaster just going to get faster and faster on the Web? You bet. If you want to die of an overdose of adrenaline, remapping your brain to the point where you can’t think straight at all, be my guest.

Here we are going to continue to demand a certain standard of excellence in the interest of business, media and government success.

© 2012 – 2015, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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