In the digital world, it’s the equivalent of going on strike. Tomorrow, a number of high-profile websites, including Wikipedia, Reddit, Cheezburger Network and Boing Boing, will go dark for up to a day to protest against contentious anti-piracy legislation proposed by the U.S. Congress.
The pending legislation would boost the power of the Justice Department to punish foreign websites that infringe copyright. It has also pit Hollywood, which has lobbied for the legislation as a tool to protect content, against Silicon Valley, which sees it as a menace to free speech.
Online lobbying efforts to kill the bill already appear to have paid off. On Saturday, the Obama administration signalled it does not support aspects of the pending legislation – the Stop Online Piracy Act – and depicted it as a threat to global innovation.
The digital dust-up, however, continues with media baron and Twitter newbie Rupert Murdoch jumping into the fray decrying the Obama administration’s stance with a tweet.
“So Obama has thrown in his lot with Silicon Valley paymasters who threaten all software creators with piracy, plain thievery,” posted Mr. Murdoch, News Corp’s chairman and chief executive officer.
The White House statement, posted Saturday on a new “We The People” page on its website, was issued in response to two online petitions against the legislation. “While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response,” it said, “we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cyber security risk or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.” It was signed by three of President Barack Obama’s top aides: Victoria Espinel, intellectual property enforcement co-ordinator; Aneesh Chopra, U.S. chief technology officer; and Howard Schmidt, cyber-security co-ordinator for the national security staff.
Their joint statement, on behalf of the administration, was seen as a significant climbdown by some observers. In November, Maria Pallante, U.S. Register of Copyrights, testified at a congressional hearing that the law was crucial.
“It’s a significant retraction; a big win for the Internet and, frankly, for the hundreds of thousands of Internet users that have spoken out against SOPA,” said Michael Geist, a professor at the University of Ottawa that specializes in cyber law.
In this election year, The White House’s move has taken on an added layer of significance. The Obama administration has rebuffed the Motion Picture Association of America, Hollywood’s chief lobbying channel, and allied itself more closely with an handful of tech companies such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook that cast themselves as the guardians of America’s new economy.
“The Democrats may set this up as them protecting the little guys, the Internet users, and the new guys as opposed to the Republicans, who are looking out for big-money interests,” said Arthur Cockfield, a law professor at Queen’s University.
Not surprisingly, the anti-SOPA movement amplified online. Thousands of Twitter users, including MC Hammer, added a “STOP SOPA” label beneath their avatar pictures. Facebook Timeline images and Google+ templates were also customized to show support for the movement.
Wikipedia’s decision to blackout for 24 hours was crowd-sourced with voting within the Wikipedia community of writers and editors that manage the website.
The opposition to SOPA was also unusual in that it united otherwise rival tech giants around a single cause, said Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School.
“The Internet technical community spoke nearly unanimously. …That’s a significant score for the engineering community,” Prof. Zittrain said.
While the proposed legislation is now doomed in its current form, there are aspects that will likely live on in a scaled-back version, according to reports.
Those include provisions meant to get search engines to disable links to foreign infringing sites; provisions that cut off advertising services to those sites; and provisions that would disable payment processing.
Internet service providers, however, are no longer facing the prospect of being forced by court order to cut off rogue foreign sites that infringe copyright. Organizers of tomorrow’s planned blackout of high-profile websites say they will protest to ensure the legislation isn’t resurrected.
“We have no indication that SOPA is fully off the table,” Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales tweeted. “We need to send Washington a BIG message.”