Why Wikipedia’s blackout sends the wrong message

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

In an act of protest, Wikipedia is shutting down for the day today to protest two proposed bills in Congress designed to curb Internet piracy.  It’s a dramatic gesture that will no doubt get attention, but may have an unintended effect.

Most of the big Internet companies are opposed to the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House of Representatives and the Protect Intellectual Property Act in the Senate. The bills were drafted in response to music- and movie-industry concerns that off-shore websites were stealing copyrighted content and selling it back to U.S. consumers.

It’s a real problem. The U.S. Constitution provides for copyright protection because authors and artists deserve to be compensated for their work. The creative community has been badly damaged by those who misappropriate others’ creations.

Still, Congress’ zeal to address these problems led to proposed legislation that is overbroad and gives government the right to block access to these so-called “rogue” sites. Many in the online community worry about giving government that much power and are concerned that content protected by the First Amendment would be suppressed along with pirated content.

In tweeting about the move, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed, MLK. On Wednesday, Wikipedia demands.” Many other sites have joined the blackout, including Reddit and Craigslist.

Other sites and online companies are using their web presence to speak out about the proposed legislation. Most notable is Google, which today is running a black censorship strip across its logo.

Shutting down its English-language site in protest is Wikipedia’s right; the First Amendment includes the right not to speak. Still, if Wikipedia, which reportedly serves more than 460 million people each month, and other prominent websites demonstrate their clout by shutting down for a single day, what is the most likely reaction?

Wales clearly hopes that people will think, “This must be a very bad law if all of these websites are going black today.”  More likely, though, is that a public increasingly reliant on websites for information will say, “Can they do that? How can they all get together and deprive us of our favorite sites? Shouldn’t somebody do something about this so it doesn’t happen again?”

Americans resent the idea of Big Brother, and  many have a healthy suspicion about government and people in authority. But people also distrust the exercise of raw power, particularly in collaboration with others.

The odd thing is that this shutdown comes as both pieces of legislation are on the ropes. A massive backlash against the bills by the public and a wide range of organizations and industries means that these bills will not pass as written and there will be significant retooling.

If Wikipedia’s blackout encourages high school students to turn to the Encyclopedia Britannica to research their school papers, that’s not a bad thing. But in making the case for the free flow of information, speaking out beats blacking out.

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