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. undertakenheart

    Great, so if a show I love that doesn't air on American TV, isn't available for sale in America will be blocked. That's blocking content from other countries. What's wrong about what's happening now. Youtube actively takes down video's that have copyrighted material whenever the owners come to them. So why is this broken piece of legislature even being considered? And honestly, if the piratebay is their only excuse, this is not going to pass.

    January 18, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shaun

      As a host of some copy written material on youtube, they don't always take it down. Sometimes when the company goes to them and says, "this is copy written material" What youtube will do is add ads to your content and links to the owners site, which in turn provides more revenue and free advertising to the owner of the copy written material. These bills will put an end to that practice.

      January 18, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Atheist #1

    Life, Liberty, and Property. But not someone else's Property!

    January 18, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Report abuse |
  3. NorCalMojo

    Dodd is back.

    January 18, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Caiha

    Amusing. Internet piracy is already illegal. This is like when a teacher punishes the whole class because one kid is being a [censored] and she didn't catch him doing it. It's not going to stop criminals from doing something criminal, it's just going to stop the rest of us from doing what we want to do. One more step towards taking away access to information, and keeping us ignorant, just like the want us.

    January 18, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
  5. TR0ll

    I used to be an Internet Explorer...but then I took a SOPA to the knee.

    January 18, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Texas Coyote

    If anyone asks yet again, why the OCCUPIERS all over the United States are protesting. Listen up!“You control our world. You've poisoned the air we breathe, contaminated the water we drink, and copyrighted the food we eat. We fight in your wars, die for your causes, and sacrifice our freedoms to protect you. You've liquidated our savings, destroyed our middle class, and used our tax dollars to bailout your unending greed. We are slaves to your corporations, zombies to your airwaves, servants... to your decadence. You've stolen our elections, assassinated our leaders, and abolished our basic human rights as human beings. You own our property, shipped away our jobs, and shredded our unions. You've profited off of disaster, destabilized our currencies, and raised our cost of living(while lowering our wages). You've monopolized our freedom, stripped away our education, and have almost extinguished our flame. We are hit...we are bleeding... but we ain't got time to bleed. We will bring the giants to their knees and you will witness our revolution! WAKE UP AMERICA! SUPPORT OCCUPY

    January 18, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Report abuse |
  7. David

    It is only the boundless naivety of people that allows them to believe the voice of the people outweighs the hundreds of millions of dollars payed by media lobbyists. As I am not a citizen of your country, I am powerless but to watch as the internet is broken.

    January 18, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nate

      That's why we must boycott anyone supporting it. In this way even someone not from America can help us

      January 18, 2012 at 10:16 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Josh

    A bit of a conflict of interest for this story w/ Time Warner being the parent co. Nice cheerful happy music lol

    January 18, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Nwvotes

    Do you think the SOPA or PIPA bill should be passed? (internet Piracy Bills) Vote at Nationwidevotes.com

    January 18, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Report abuse |
  10. PhillyGuy

    @RadZap & Laloo – Not ALL musicians make their money from live performance. See that's the ignorance that I mean. The public for some reason thinks that Hollywood is only made up of Actors and Directors, and the Music Industry is only made up of Singers. There are a lot of behind the scenes people that try to make a full-time living in other aspects of the industry.

    In Hollywood, you have carpenters that make the sets, you have tailors that make costumes, you have writers, your set crews for cameras, lighting, you have film editors, you have foley specialists for sound effects, you have audio engineers that only mix full soundtracks with dialogue, agents, managers, etc.

    In the recording industry, you DO have film composers that don't go out to clubs performing as a musician to make money from a gig. Instead, they sit in their studios, in front of their Mac & PC computers running Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, etc making orchestral arrangements like Hans Zimmer, or Danny Elfman. Or, they take their computer orchestral mock-ups, and actually go to the Hollywood lot in Burbank, CA and have a world renowned Hollywood orchestra play their parts for a movie or tv show.

    Which is what I'm getting more work doing, because trust me, I've done the gigging thing as a live musician, and after a while, it gets old loading and unloading your equipment to a gig from a van after hours of playing for a few hundred bucks!

    This legislation only affects people storing illegal content. If you're not storing illegal content, then nothing happens to you. Where as what's been going on for the past 10+ years, is that even if you've been storing illegal content, still nothing happens to you! The internet is a public place, just like a supermarket. But because a supermarket is open to everyone in the world, it doesn't make it right for you to, try out an item on the shelf that you never had before! If you want something in the supermarket, you pay for it! What's so hard to understand about that?

    If you don't like an artist or movie, then you don't buy it. What's not to understand about that. But every person does understand what it means to take something that you were not given permission to have. I don't care what country you travel to on this planet, that is always considered stealing.

    And it's true that there are other facts that have accounted for poor record sales and movie attendance. Like bad music, and bad movies. I don't disagree. But it really doesn't take a high school education to understand that if you have millions of people with high-speed broadband connections with full access to websites hosting a movie bootleg from 1 day after a theater release, that the movie company, and everyone associated with the movie in Hollywood is not getting what they should be for their work, because someone just stole their property. If you can't even admit that simple fact, then you're just looking for an excuse to steal.

    Given that the Movie and Recording Industry have had a downward interests in sales over the past few years, they certainly don't need millions of people purposely stealing from them with no consequence to add to their misery. If they fail because of bad content, let it be because of that, not because you're also blatantly stealing from them also.

    January 18, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • USCitizen

      Your reply was very well written and not fallen on deaf ears my friend. Yes pirating is wrong, no one is disagreeing with that. Its the bills them selves and what they would enable the government to do in the immediate and near future that makes these laws hated and protested so much. If you think about it, how many rights have we the American people let get taken away from us because of words like National Security? You can not tell me that this Government, backed by its corporate sponsors (which do include the heads of major media) will not push for more control of the internet. Our internet is our last true resource for unbiased information, and if we give this government an inch, I guarantee that they will start taking miles. As I said, your reply (which is very well written by the way) has not fallen on deaf ears, I for one am more worried about more of our liberties (if not the rest of the few we still have) being taken away. It just saddens me that it takes laws like these and web sites blacking out to get the American people pay attention to the laws that are being passed and amended in our Congress that clearly is no longer for the people.

      January 18, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Report abuse |
  11. karl

    So, it's CNN to the rescue of the common man! Yeah right. Everyone with a brain under 25 knows you and the rest of you bought and paid for by the establishment are discredited.

    January 18, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©™

    "Thou shalt not steal."
    Some of my income comes from royalties from recordings on six or seven different labels.
    You can pirate my records, but don't then come to this board preaching and quoting the Bible.

    January 18, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Report abuse |
  13. dog4dog

    ehh. it should all be taken with a grain of salt, certain sites like youtube should be shut down foresure, but wikipedia, common now, where would we be without it, i am not all that familiar with the legislation but i bet the repubican party is making some money one way or another by pushing the bs, a few commenters stated that this will make it so america is no longer a "free" country, sorry babe but you must be new to america, we aint been free since 03, the republicans specifically the bush administration turned the united states form of government into federalism, no joke, go to the rest of the world ad tell me we dont have state run media, but anyways back to my point some republican is making money of this bill i bet, that is the only way they get anything done, anyone remember how much the dishonorable dick cheney made in iraq, idk the full numbers but by 2005 his shares in "haliburton" made him over 10 million dollars....TEN MILLION DOLLARS...TEN MILLION DOLLARS....TEN MILLION DOLLARS....and the company continued to see "market miracles" every year on their gains through 08, this crack down on free media is again a sign that the usa is going down the tubs quick, the republican or should I say wigg party needs to be voted out of the senate and house and replaced with a democrat floor, then and only then will the interest of the other than one percnters be the main agenda for this country, a revolution is comming closer with every greedy law passed in congress

    January 18, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • dog4dog

      occupy america is just the first step, what made america strong in the past was the standard of living for the middle class, don't get me wrong i spent time at an ivy league and soon next fall will be a law or grad student but you should not have to go through so much bs to enjoy: job security, pensions, health ins (thank obama)...yadda yadda, right, but those jobs no longer exist, people in america can find decent warehouse work for about 30 hrs a week(no benefits), ww2 vets (everybody went) came home and demanded jobs and the gov answered, occupy america is the first step, greedy laws cntinue to get passed and we americans continue to be herded by the rich like cattle, i love my country and would do what others would not dream of for it but i can see its future is looking rather dark, a revolution is comming

      January 18, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Report abuse |
  14. g0tgot

    im so down for a coup de tat at this point. we have people in the senate worried about things like the SOPA , when we should be focusing on bringing back industrial jobs to the people, instead the govt is pushing the companies out due to high tax rate and high real estate prices that they are searching else where to do their business.

    January 18, 2012 at 9:54 pm | Report abuse |
  15. James

    'Iran war could end life on earth'
    US warnings to Israel for not attacking Iran is to avoid responsibility for the war Washington has prepared, former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Paul Craig Roberts wrote in an article on Global Research.
    "If the war gets out of hand, and if Russia and China intervene or nukes start flying, Washington wants the blame to rest on Israel, and Israel seems willing to accept the blame," Craig Roberts said.

    January 18, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse |
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