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. SChris

    I think if this bill goes through, it will be a blatant display that our system isn't working and that congressmen/women are listening to lobbyists rather than the people of their district. I have yet to see one post in support of this bill, yet I think it was 81 congressmen, (including my own which I find to be ridiculous because nobody in my district would support this), supported this bill while 31 opposed. If the vast majority of people are against it, and the majority of congress is for this bill, i think it points out a fatal flaw in our system. Congress is voting based on money and not representing our positions.

    January 18, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Relictus

      That is an accurate assessment. They vote for monied interests.

      January 18, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
  2. sha

    The corporations want o keep the people uninformed, block the information , and make money from lack of information. the republicans want to steel our money with lack of information. they want to make america like undeveloped countries whom buy what they sell.

    January 18, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Cycotech

    Here is the stupid part to this, only the DNS would be blocked which means http://www.youtube.com would be blocked but the IP address would not be so they would spend all this money to block something you can just goto whois.com for and go there anyway. This is about the MPAA and the RIAA controlling what you look at on the internet. Write your congressman!

    January 18, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      Just watch as they block whois as well. If this passes though, Freenet and I2P would explode with people.

      January 18, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Relictus

    (fake) Newsflash: ISPs servicing pro-SOPA senators, congressmen and media cancel the politician's service and refund their money. Senator Santorum baffled by loss of home internet access. Turner Broadcasting baffled by outages, threatens lawsuit.

    One ISP explains, "It was them or us".

    In other news, shares of Turner Broadcasting dropped 25%.

    ... I can dream, right? =)

    January 18, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brian

      @relictus, that is a totally awesome idea, so awesome that you made me say "totally awesome" non-ironically and without embarrassment.

      January 18, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Randy

    In case you missed it, this article was written by someone who works for CNN, who is owned by Time Warner, which is a BACKER of SOPA/PIPA.

    January 18, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • PHOENIX TAYLOR

      i didn't miss that. this site has no business telling people about sopa.

      January 18, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
  6. eabrown

    jebaited

    January 18, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |
  7. ryantheappleguy

    CNN supports the bill so of course they're not telling you the full story.
    Its almost as if CNN is saying that anti-SOPA groups like Wikipedia dont know what they're talking about.

    As soon as CNN says that they support the bill, that should be more than enough reason for any SMART person to stop reading or listening to CNN and go seek your information about SOPA somewhere else. Somewhere where they obviously know what they're talking about since they are so against it.

    January 18, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
  8. PHOENIX TAYLOR

    I am an artist... my work is constantly found in calendars and printed on playing cards on EBAY! It is a nightmare... that being said... SOPA is dead wrong for the united states! How many countries block out the internet? ummm... the ones we always point and laugh at for their lack of freedoms. Korea, Iran, China...

    I cant believe SOPA made it this far.

    January 18, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Last Call

    PIPA/SOPA clearly violate the 4th Amendment, since the legislation allows the feds to simply shut down any website with which they disagree, and the victim would have no recourse. Here's what the 4th Amendment says:

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    January 18, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Relictus

    I, for one, remember the days of SneakerNet. SneakerNet meant that you had made a hard copy of content and handed it to a friend. Combined with PGP encryption, multi-gigabyte DvDs and email, content could simply slide into the digital underground. A speakeasy for the new millennium. A speakeasy was an underground bar during the days of Prohibition. Prohibition was a period in the early 1920's when alcohol was banned. Prohibition did not work, btw.

    January 18, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Phillip Thomas

      Is that to imply that there will soon be mobsters exploiting the situation by reaping huge profits off of black market intellectual property? If so, where do I sign up?

      January 18, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
  11. BrofromtheO

    Wow. CNN should write an article about how January 18 2012 was on a Wednesday. I bet some person would comment how displeased they were with that information as well as how much smarter they were as compared to CNN.

    January 18, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Lyn

    Use the existing piracy laws not censorship . Censorship is not democratic and this is still a democracy.

    January 18, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
  13. OneNut

    How to bypass the black out of wikipedia and view the content. When loading wikipedia page into your browser the script will redirect to a non function content page. This is the simply way to by pass it. Before it fully load just click on stop button on the toolbar. This will stop the timer of the script from redirecting to another.

    January 18, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
  14. IHasInterWebs

    If this legislation makes you upset, WRITE your local congresspersons and your senators. You can find boilerplate for a letter on any of the protesting sites, and it takes about 10 minutes to put your name on it, print it out and mail it. And CALL them. Don't just be an armchair protestor.

    This issue is finally getting media attention, so use this moment to make congress think again before introducing similar legislation - because they certainly WILL try to re-introduce this bill in similar form. The media industry has powerful lobbyists and they will continue to fight to put the internet genie bottle back in the bottle.

    Now is the time to forcibly make Washington feel that this approach is a dead end with the public. So CALL and WRITE your representatives. It will make an impact - one day of this has made an impact!

    January 18, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Gary

    See folks this is one of reasons why I'm voting for Ron Paul!

    January 18, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
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