Editorial: Big-name websites threaten blackout to protest SOPA

There is growing concern among many in the online community that the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a US bill that would give the government power to block websites that violate copyright laws, is inspiring more than just contempt among the sites that stand to lose the most from it.

The social news site Reddit is spearheading a protest of the bill set to take place on January 18th, during which it and the other sites that have joined it will be functionally inaccessible to users.  Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales announced last week that if his site’s users are in favor of the blackout, it too will go dark on Wednesday.  It has also been rumored that Internet giants like Facebook, Amazon and Google may follow suit with their own concerted blackout in the months to come.

The idea behind the proposed political action is to give users a taste of the risks posed by the passage of SOPA.  Under the bill, sites whereon members post and share links to copyrighted material could be blocked from the visible Internet entirely.  Community-oriented websites like Wikipedia and Reddit are, understandably, upset, many arguing that the bill would open the door to heretofore unseen levels of online censorship.

This week, the web is abuzz with user reaction to the planned protest, and while it is not yet clear whether or not most are in favor of the blackout, one thing is sure—people are listening.

There are few among us who can go a day without visiting at least one of the sites participating in or considering the blackout, and just the prospect of them all shutting down at once is enough to send shivers down the spine of the average user.  However, the protest also has the potential to inspire a lot of anger amongst the online community, and there is no guarantee that all of it will be directed toward SOPA.

One must wonder if the sites shouldn’t be at least a little concerned about the possibility of the blackout backfiring and turning users against them.  There is a good chance that many Wikipedia users, for example, have never heard of SOPA.  When they log on and find the page inactive, they aren’t going to care why the site is down.  They are just going to want it fixed, and when they learn Wikipedia is deliberately denying them access to the site, they are probably going to be very upset.

Sites are hoping to combat this possibility by replacing their home pages with explanations of why they are down, the dangers of SOPA and how users can help.  But a little outrage on the part of users is not only expected, it is necessary.  Let’s not forget, the purpose of any mass protest is to raise awareness among the general public, and inconveniencing them is one of the best ways to accomplish that.

The fact of the matter is that most Americans take for granted the privileges assured them by an unregulated Internet. The purpose of the blackout is to expose users to the very real possibility that the era of unhindered online interaction may be coming to an end.  Bills like SOPA make it possible for the government to impede and even halt the progress of the online file sharing community that has come to define our generation.

It’s important to note that there is much more at stake here than just the fate of malicious or illegal file sharing.  Any site that hosts user-posted content is at risk, from those that expedite our financial transactions, like Amazon, to those that facilitate social interaction, like Facebook and Twitter, and those that equip us with the tools necessary to organize and research material for work and school, like Google and Wikipedia.

Even more unsettling is the possibility that SOPA could in any way threaten a system that has made so much information available to so many.  Free information, something that we as students make use of countless times on a day-to-day basis, could become a thing of the past if SOPA and bills like it are allowed to pass.

Just the prospect of the proposed blackout serves as a solemn reminder of how reliant we have become on the resources provided us by an unregulated Internet, as well as the doubt into which SOPA throws the availability of those resources.  The blackout, if all goes according to plan, will illustrate not only how far we have come, but also how much we have to lose.

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