January 18th, 2012
12:26 PM ET

SOPA 101: Your guide to the Internet blackout

You probably woke up this morning to realize the Internet is totally screwy.

Is it the online apocalypse? Not so much. Google, Wikipedia, Boing Boing and others have gone dark, along with thousands of others, who are protesting two anti-piracy bills that are up for debate in the U.S. Congress.

It's a debate that's pitted the Web against Washington. And if the goal of these protests was to get people talking, that sure seems to have worked, with every media organization on the planet talking about piracy today.

Many of these sites are using creative techniques to bring attention to the two bills – one called SOPA, the other PIPA – and making very clear their viewpoint on it.

Before you panic, read our quick-and-dirty guide to these online protests.

So, what are these piracy bills about?

With all of these sites going dark, it is important to know why this topic has become the center of a heated debate.

CNNMoney has a genius explainer on this topic, for those interested in all the gritty details. The gist is this: Media companies are upset that their copyrighted content gets stolen and given away for free by some websites. Two bills aim to crack down on this piracy by restricting access to U.S. websites that potentially could link to this pirated content. Tech companies in Silicon Valley say the bills have unintended consequences that could tamper with the way the Internet functions.

You can learn about it here: █████████████████, here: █████████ here:██████ and here:█████████.

Kidding! That blackout technique is part of the point these sites are trying to make today as they fully go dark.

– There’s a large blackout bar over Google’s logo.

– English-language Wikipedia sites are blacked out.

– And, don't freak out, but the tech blog Boing Boing shows a “service unavailable” error.

"Boing Boing is offline today, because the US Senate is considering legislation that would certainly kill us forever," the site says.

The humor website TheOatmeal.com has gotten the most traction for its creative use of their homepage to bring attention to SOPA.

"For the next 24 hours I am blacking out TheOatmeal.com in protest of SOPA and PIPA. If one of these bills were to pass, this page is what many sites on the internet would look like," the website reads. "As someone who creates content for the web, earns a living from it, and has had his content pirated, I do feel that we need better legislation against online piracy. I do not, however, think that SOPA or PIPA are the legislation we need."

The site's page, like many others remains black and has an animated GIF that it points out they took from somewhere else. If SOPA were to pass, the site says, they would be shut down. We'd show you the full animation, but it is a little not-safe-for-work. The animation is several images compiled from the Web with text about SOPA and a message in between, as seen above. The site asks you to join them and "please pirate the s***out of this animated GIF."

The site GOOD, which is known for its commentary on culture and society, also put up a massive splash page today.

"Today, GOOD is joining forces with friends around the world and around the internet to mobilize opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act and PROTECT IP Act, the flawed bills being considered in the House and Senate right now," the site says at the top of their homepage. At the bottom they thank those who share their view, in quite an upfront way.

All these sites, and thousands of others, are protesting two anti-piracy bills that are up for debate in the U.S. Congress.

They're arguing that so much of the content we share comes from other places and if this new law were to pass, much of it wouldn't be able to be published or would be censored or taken offline if it were. Links couldn't be shared to other content unless otherwise approved, the same goes for images and any other content.

That’s why companies like Google and Wikipedia are protesting and asking people to join them.

"Fighting online piracy is important. The most effective way to shut down pirate websites is through targeted legislation that cuts off their funding," a template letter for users to send to legislators says on Google's site. "There’s no need to make American social networks, blogs and search engines censor the Internet or undermine the existing laws that have enabled the Web to thrive, creating millions of U.S. jobs."

Their site includes this video:

But many companies have also come out and said they do support the legislation. Several media companies, and Rupert Murdoch himself have tweeted about their support. CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, is among those supporting the legislation.

How do people feel about the Internet blackout?

CNN iReport has a nice wrap-up of how CNN viewers feel about the blackouts.

On Twitter, some college students are angry they can’t use Wikipedia to write their term papers. (Side note: Really, college students?)

Some are making blackout jokes:

Other users had strong messages for why these bills ought to be defeated:

And, of course, stones are flying from the other camp, too, with many supporters of the anti-piracy legislation saying all these blackouts are completely ridiculous.

When is the protest going to be over?

Most of the digital protests should end by 12 a.m. ET on Thursday.

Wikipedia will be back online then. Some other sites end their protests even sooner.

So are the protests working? Is the legislation likely to pass?

Many signs indicate that the online protests - and the outrage from tech companies, generally, over the past several months; Google, Facebook and others signed a letter strongly opposing SOPA in November - are having some impact on the legislation.

One key provision of SOPA, which would have allowed the government to block certain domain names, has been eliminated. That was drawing comparisons to China's Internet policies (not a good thing if you're the U.S.)

Discussion of the bills also has been pushed back. In the House, SOPA likely won’t get a hearing until February. The Senate bill, PIPA, could be discussed in late January. Those dates are subject to constant change, and the bills are being amended regularly.

But, bottom line, commentators say the bills are losing steam:

"Before it looked like it would pass with 80 votes, and now [the online protest] looks like something that will suck the votes away," a Senate Democratic aide told CNN's Political Ticker. "We're at a tipping point. It will either become a huge issue or die down a bit and that will determine the future of this."

Some politicians, no doubt receiving a flood of tweets from constituents, are responding online too.

Is there an alternative bill?

Some members of the House are supporting a new-ish piece of legislation called the OPEN Act, which is posted online in full if you’d like to take a look. More on the details from CNNMoney's tech reporters:

Among other differences, OPEN offers more protection than SOPA would to sites accused of hosting pirated content. It also beefs up the enforcement process. It would allow digital rights holders to bring cases before the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), an independent agency that handles trademark infringement and other trade disputes.

Some people, including Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, like the legislation, or at least the idea behind it.

Others say it doesn’t go far enough to protect copyright:

How did Wikipedia decide to go down?

The site held a vote among its editors. Some 1,800 people participated in that conversation, Wales, the Wikipedia founder, told CNN Tech on Tuesday.

CNN asked Wales if he worried about backlash to the blackout. He shrugged it off:

This is a principled stand. It comes from our community. We had this huge voting process. We just don't think in those kinds of terms. I believe our best long-term prospect for Wikipedia in terms of our survival ... depends on us being principled and making it known that, hey, Wikipedia is here to stand up for free and open Internet. I think that will drive donations in the long term. I think it will drive contributions. And, especially from what I've seen on Twitter, I think it will drive the passionate loyalty of our fans. People feel like if push comes to shove they can count on Wikipedia, and that really matters to people.

Is there a way to get around the Wikipedia blackout?

Vous parlez francais? If so, you're in luck. All of the foreign-language articles on Wikipedia are still available. If you're really desperate, you could use a service like Google Translate to get those into English.

If you have a smartphone, the mobile version of Wikipedia is up and available, according to several news reports and our trials.

On the iPad it's a little more complicated, writes The Telegraph:

On the iPad however, the site serves its full website, so although it was accessible earlier, Wkipedia is not currently available. The site is also currently displaying its articles for a very short time and then covering them with its special ‘dark’ homepage protesting against the SOPA piracy legislation. Users can hit either the “X” button on a tablet or press escape in some internet browsers if using a PC. Internet Explorer, however, does not seem to support this currently.

Finally, some reports suggest that if you press the "escape" key right as the English version of Wikipedia is loading in a standard Internet browser, you can bypass the SOPA advocacy message and go straight to articles. Worked for us, but give it a try yourself.

If none of those options work for you, check out a post from The Next List with more tips.

soundoff (389 Responses)
  1. Leonard Bay

    I regularly donate to Wikipedia, and will up my contributions. I've tried to contact Senators via their official web pages / forms, but their servers seem to be unable to handle the traffic. Do Not Let SOPA or PIPA pass. I hope you are listening.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  2. banasy©

    google blacked out their name, not their funtion.
    Whoopee.
    Wikipedia? Can't get on, but Google?
    It's there.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Josh

      Apple did absolutely nothing.

      What's your point?

      January 18, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Eric

    Yes SOPA has been shelved, but there is a Senate version called PIPA. It's just as dangerous as SOPA. If it passes you will see another recession come on almost immediately as businesses are forced to shutdown because of this stupid law. Do the senators that support this just not see the ramifications of passing this other than lining their pockets from the lobbyists who wrote the bill? Call your senator and tell them to vote no on PIPA or vote them out if they vote yes.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Wes

      SOPA has NOT been shelved..

      January 18, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Dann

    What is SOPA and PIPA in a nutshell?

    Imagine a small fly buzzing around you, then landing on a wall. That fly is copyright infringing material. It is not a part of the wall, but it decided to land on the wall, regardless of whether or not that wall wanted to have a fly on it. What SOPA/PIPA are being built to do is kill that fly. But they will do it by bulldozing that entire wall.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • magnus

      you forgot to mention that after destroying the wall and the fly, they will laugh about it over $200 bottle of wine as they count their millions.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Lauren

    Instead of congress focusing on our recreational activites why dont they focus on helpping the people get out of this recession..... This government clearly does not care about the people... while people are becomming homeless and starving.... they are getting richer and trying to pass laws that do nothing to help us.... All they want to do is get on their soap box and try and control what we see,do,hear,think,feel....we are our own person..human beings! not puppets on a string for THEM to control!

    January 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Josh

      Yes, there are bigger issues. However, there aren't lobbyists paying them to get USA out of the recession. There are, however, lobbyists for major media corporations (such as Turner Broadcasting Systems, Time Warner, etc) paying them to support the bill.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • magnus

      rich people hire people to eat the as-hole of a congressman and in return the congressman makes sure the rich person becomes richer.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Dmitry Ostrovsky

    This is one of the most egregious attacks on our democracy since the Citizens United ruling allowed corporations to indirectly and insidiously select our leaders for us. A functioning democracy is dependent upon the free exchange of information between citizens. These bills are indicating the government's willingness to sacrifice the freedom of the many for the profits of the few. I think we will be seeing more and more bills like this in the future until comprehensive campaign finance reform eradicates soft corruption. I used to only be embarrassed of our congressmen and senators. But SOPA + NDAA + Enemy Extradition Act...(not to mention Patriot Act and TSA expansion) has pushed my embarassment towards emnity.

    I understand that we need to 'protection' against piracy and terrorism. But by destroying the fundamentals upon this great nation is built, we are in effect 'letting the terrorists win' by killing our fragile democracy from within.

    Politicians know that mass ignorance allows them to get away with corruption, so for them, SOPA is a win/win situation. Money from lobbyists + censorship power to remove dissent. They say they will use this only for copywrite infringement, just like Obama said he will not use the NDAA on American citizens. It not like we've ever been lied to by our leaders, so I guess everything will be fine and dandy.

    Once SOPA is dead the corporate coop

    January 18, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Dmitry Ostrovsky

      Sorry for not proofreading. Too late to edit =/

      January 18, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Timothy Whalin

    Thanks for quoting me, though I'm not a college student and I'm definitely not angry about Wikipedia.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • BOMBO ©

      Nor did you make a blackout joke, by the look of it.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Ryan

    Another easy way top view the Wikipedia pages if to simply search for the Wikipedia page in question through Google and selected Cached to viewed Google's cached version of the page. The formatting may be a little off, but it works.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  9. reality

    A PiRATE ....... AND PROUD

    Anything that can be copied ENDLESSLY..... at NO COST.........is WORTHLESS. (literally)
    Why is gold valuable ?
    There should be no laws to protect...... corporations bad business models.
    Selling worthless copies is a bad business model.....evolve or die.

    Anti-Pirates hate people who share WORTHLESS data....
    Anti-Pirates want to throw people in jail....
    Anti-Pirates want to financially ruin people....
    Anti-Pirates will happily remove all personal freedoms to share copywrong content....
    All for profit...

    Who's worse..... Pirates or Anti-Pirates ?

    Anti-Pirates are the intolerant to reality side ... who will destroy a person

    Pirates just share worthless copies

    January 18, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Josh

      Don't be ridiculous.

      I've pirated, and still do, however I pay those that I believe deserve it when I can. Believe it or not, that "worthless data" is not created magically for free. You can try to justify doing wrong however you want, but it's not right. It's not your material, thus you have no right to decide what value it has.

      You are, however, correct about companies needing to keep up with the times. I've stopped game piracy because of Steam. It's convenient and offers a few benefits over the old model. I like to support the companies that make the games I enjoy.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • sapphyreopal5

      I don't agree that movies are worthless data (or even music). I definitely agree that they're all over-priced, especially movies. Why on earth should I buy a new movie for $30-40 (movies typically being at least $15 after a while) that I most likely will watch a few times? If the entertainment industry was smart, they'd make it easier to download their content for under $5 per file (or less) and make the downloading speed faster than websites that offer free content. Would you rather wait several hours, days, or even weeks (depending on the number of seeders and leechers for the file and your internet speed) to download something for free, or would you rather pay a few bucks to have it within a few hours?
      Now that would be a smart idea. But then again who listens to the good ideas these days? Clearly not Congress or the entertainment industry.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
  10. steven s

    Bravo Wikipedia, Wish Google would follow your lead. I vote for more sites doing thios so people will get a taste of whats to come.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Charles

    "The site's page, like many others remains black and has an animated GIF that it points out they took from somewhere else."

    I think it may be important to point out that the author of the GIF on The Oatmeal today didn't take the GIF from somewhere else. He made the GIF himself, but the GIF contains images that may be copyrighted.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. banasy©

    It's one day withought Wikipedia, people.
    It's not a lifetime.
    Students, if you are behind on your paper even though you knew in advance that Wikipedia was going to do this, there are other sites.
    Better yet, go to the library.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  13. coloradom

    Kudos to Wikipedia and others for their blackout. By the way, Wikipedia has, on their own site, the way to get around the blackout of content. Obviously the idea isn't to restrict all access, but to draw attention to the importance of this legislation.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  14. JimMNH

    SOPA and PIPA give "judge, jury and executioner" privs to corporations and completely bypasses the judicial system and due process. It is a similar power grab to the one orchestrated by the US executive branch with the Patriot Act and Executive Orders just a few years ago (bypassing congress, the judicial system and FISA) but is a direct power grab from private corporations. An entirely new level of insanity of corrosion of basic rights and freedoms. And worse .. these corporations are working to bully foreign sovereign nations into requiring these same SOPA and PIPA styled laws in their own countries .. just ask Spain.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Kelly

    Interestingly, on our local news broadcast last night here in Toronto, Canada they did a decent job of explaining the crux of the issue. The national CBS news (and ardent support of SOPA/PIPA) with Scott Pelley barely made mention of it ... at the end of the broadcast. Ironically, it is the Internet that is allowing all of us to say NO to this draconian and profoundly unfair legislation that affects us just as much in Canada. And that is why I wrote our Minister of Foreign Affairs today to ask him to express our concern to his counterpart in Washington.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Michael

      If there was a "Like" button on here, I'd press it for Kelly's comment. This clearly shows the issue goes far beyond our borders, and can affect untold millions around the world who LEGALLY interact with U.S. content providers and vendors for LEGALLY obtained material.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
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