Thursday, January 19, 2012

One Per Cent - What was the impact of internet's blackout SOPA protest?

Jim Giles, consultant

Picture-1(2).jpgWikipedia went down, denying access to the 85 million people who visit the site every day. Flickr users chose to black out over 200,000 photos. Reddit, a news aggregator that is an important source of traffic for many media sites, was out of action. Wired censored its own headlines and BoingBoing, a popular tech culture blog, censored its entire site. So, did yesterday's black-out have any effect?

For the benefit of those who missed the furore, which at one point was the subject of 4,500 tweets per minute, the black-outs were protests against two copyright bills - dubbed SOPA and PIPA - that are making their way through Congress. The bills would give copyright holders greater power to take down content deemed to be infringing, and so are liked by Hollywood and big music companies.

The protests seem to have been effective. Several Republican supporters of the legislation, most notably potential vice-presidential pick Marco Rubio, withdrew their backing. Since the White House had already signalled its dislike of the bills, supporters of SOPA and PIPA will probably have to substantially rewrite their proposals, or kill them altogether.

But support for the black-out tactics was not unanimous. After being asked if he had the "cojones" to take down Twitter for the day, Dirk Costolo, the company's CEO, said "that's just silly. Closing a global business in reaction to single-issue national politics is foolish". Costolo has expressed support for the protests, but suggested that engaging with policy makers is a better way for Twitter to get its point across.

Other site owners backed away from plans of a black out. Ben Huh, founder of the Cheezburger Network, a successful group of comedy sites, declared last week that "All Cheezburger sites will also be instituting a blackout on January 18th" , but the site ultimately kept content up and restricted itself to displaying a protest note to visitors. A spokeswoman for the network said Huh had changed tack after Cheezburger readers objected to the shut down.

Some sites displayed black-out notices, but kept key services online at other addresses. Visitors to the home page of the Internet Archive saw such a notice, but the archive's Wayback Machine, a tool for searching old web pages, was available at its usual address. Open-source software maker Mozilla also went black, but kept the download page for its Firefox browser online.

Still, this seems like nit-picking on a day on which so many sites went silent, Congress listened and many many students found that, with Wikipedia down, they could not do their homework. At least the latter group can't say they were not warned. In a tweet sent on 16 January, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales said: "Student warning! Do your homework early. Wikipedia protesting bad law on Wednesday!"

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