Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Wikipedia blackout

In about a day, Wikipedia will go dark for 24 hours, as a protest against the abominable anti-piracy bills (SOPA and PIPA) currently passing through Congress. I'm pretty excited about this, for a couple of reasons. First, as I've said before, this is an extremely important issue and it's good to see the web community banding together to fight back in a dramatic fashion. Wikipedia is the world's sixth most-trafficked site and its disappearance will not go unnoticed.

Second, it's good to know that Wikipedia's opposition to the bill hasn't dimmed even as public opinion has shifted to its side. In a dramatic change of fortune, SOPA certainly appears to be on the ropes at the moment, and the forces of good seem to have the upper hand. Some of the bill's worst provisions -- mostly involving DNS blocking -- have been stripped out. But the copyright lobby hasn't given up yet. I've seen it suggested that a compromise bill is possible, preserving anti-piracy measures but including protections for "legitimate" sites. No compromise is acceptable. Even a compromise bill would infringe upon essential free speech interests. Piracy on the web is intrinsically linked with the web's ability to serve as a free-wheeling platform for any kind of speech, and any attempt to limit piracy will also necessarily limit speech. Anonymity, privacy, and equal access are the internet's building blocks, and all three are invariably eroded by anti-piracy efforts. Even if you think that piracy is a genuine social or economic problem (and I very much don't), it's a problem dwarfed by the importance of preserving free and open internet culture. A few copied movies is the small price we pay for a better society, and the Wikipedia community seems to realize that.

One more (tangetially-related) observation: I think it's interesting that Wikipedia has decided to move forward with its blackout, while Google and Facebook appear to have abandoned their own plans to go dark. I suspect this is a reflection of the different decision-making processes in each organization. Google and Facebook are controlled by handful of high-level directors, who undoubtedly receive daily briefings on SOPA's progress through the legislative branch. Wikipedia's decision, by contrast, was made by a large group of contributors and community members. It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that Wikipedia's collective enthusiasm for the blackout was sustained even in the face of rapid political developments. Populist movements are often slow to change course.

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