Wednesday 18 January marked the largest online protest in the history of the internet. Websites from large to small "went dark" in protest of proposed legislation before the US House and Senate that could profoundly change the internet. The two bills, Sopa in the House and Pipa in the Senate, ostensibly aim to stop the piracy of copyrighted material over the internet on websites based outside the US. Critics – among them, the founders of Google, Wikipedia, the Internet Archive, Tumblr and Twitter – counter that the laws will stifle innovation and investment, hallmarks of the free, open internet. The Obama administration has offered muted criticism of the legislation, but, as many of his supporters have painfully learned, what President Barack Obama questions one day, he signs into law the next.
First, the basics. Sopa stands for the Stop Online Piracy Act, while Pipa is the Protect IP Act. The two bills are very similar. Sopa would allow copyright holders to complain to the US attorney general about a foreign website they allege is "committing or facilitating the commission of criminal violations" of copyright law. This relates mostly to pirated movies and music. Sopa would allow the movie industry, through the courts and the US attorney general, to send a slew of demands that internet service providers (ISPs) and search engine companies shut down access to those alleged violators, and even to prevent linking to those sites, thus making them "unfindable". It would also bar internet advertising providers from making payments to websites accused of copyright violations.
Sopa could, then, shut down a community-based site like YouTube if just one of its millions of users was accused of violating one US copyright. As David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer and an opponent of the legislation, blogged:
"Last year alone, we acted on copyright takedown notices for more than 5 million webpages. Pipa and Sopa will censor the web, will risk our industry's track record of innovation and job creation, and will not stop piracy."
Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told me:
"These bills propose new powers for the government and for private actors to create, effectively, blacklists of sites … then force service providers to block access to those sites. That's why we call these the censorship bills."
The bills, she says, are the creation of the entertainment, or "content", industries: "Sopa, in particular, was negotiated without any consultation with the technology sector. They were specifically excluded." The exclusion of the tech sector has alarmed not only Silicon Valley executives, but also conservatives like Utah Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz, a Tea Party favorite. He said in a December House judiciary committee hearing, "We're basically going to reconfigure the Internet and how it's going to work, without bringing in the nerds."
Pipa sponsor Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat, Vermont) said in a press release, "Much of what has been claimed about [Pipa] is flatly wrong and seems intended more to stoke fear and concern than to shed light or foster workable solutions." Sadly, Leahy's ire sounds remarkably similar to that of his former Senate colleague Christopher Dodd, who, after retiring, took the job of chairman and CEO of the powerful lobbying group Motion Picture Association of America (at a reported salary of $1.2m annually), one of the chief backers of Sopa/Pipa. Said Dodd of the broadbased, grassroots internet protest, "It's a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests."
EFF's McSherry said, "No one asked the internet – well, the internet is speaking now. People are really rising up and saying: 'Don't interfere with basic Internet infrastructure. We won't stand for it.'"
As the internet blackout protest progressed 18 January, and despite Dodd's lobbying, legislators began retreating from support for the bills. The internet roared, and the politicians listened, reminiscent of the popular uprising against media consolidation in 2003 proposed by then Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell, the son of General Colin Powell. Information is the currency of democracy, and people will not sit still as moneyed interests try to deny them access.
When internet users visited the sixth-most popular website on the planet during the protest blackout, the English-language section of Wikipedia, they found this message:
"Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge.
"For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the US Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open internet."
In a world with fresh, internet-fueled revolutions, it seems that US politicians are getting the message.
• Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.