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. James Degenhardt (Myrnnyx Minis)

    As someone who's artwork has been pirated as well, I agree with the blackout, and my site is also shut down today.

    When we give away our essential liberties for any reason, we lose the power to take them back when WE want them, and have to beg a corrupt government to restore them. I'd rather keep them than go through that.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Eli

    Type "‎?banner=none" without the quotation marks, of course, at the end of the wikipedia page url. It will then open as normal, even an English article. Also, contact your congresspeople and tell them to oppose SOPA and PIPA!

    January 18, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Michael

    I wonder if it would do any good to offer training classes to Congress on how the Internet works, and how it could benefit them more by leaving it as it is now than to pass these bills. It's obvious that most of them don't have a clue...

    January 18, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
  4. BOMBO ©

    I hate to say it, but nothing short of an international standard is going to stop piracy (which means it won't be stopped). Any effort by any individual country to do so will mainly just inconvenience ordinary users, but tech savvy users and the pirates the bills are aimed at will simply find ways to dodge the new standards, like so many Indonesians on top of a train dodging concrete balls.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Dave Friedel

    I am a big fan of CNN, but so far I have to say that even though you disclose that your parent company supports it, you are not giving it much air time at all. Clearly you do not wish to raise the ire of your billionaire overlords. I trust CNN, but not for its coverage of SOPA. It's trying to skip rocks off the water. Shame on CNN.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      You'd change your tune John if you watched the video the purportedly "explains" the issue to CNN viewers. The video misrepresents this legislation by glossing over the more obnoxious parts of the bill and focusing instead on the less controversial bits. It's not just that they aren't covering the issue as much as they are actively spreading disinformation.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  6. John

    US is going backwords. If this thing was used 100 years ago you would still be rinding ahorse to work.

    When cars first came, and some one died in an accident. the thing is to to restrick cars.

    This is run by money men for money.. They already have enough of a hold on you. They tell you its the land of opertunity, They don't tell you that the opertunity is for them. Let this go ahead and you deserve what follows.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Bob

    Congress, well all politicians can keep the masses quiet if they shut down the internet whats the first thing countrys do when they have internal problem they shut down the net. keep the net free of controls
    that would hurt our freedoms. The freedom of information is to important.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Wendy

    hummm....I create something...put it on the internet on my site....my content is then put on another site without my permission and I am supposed to call that freedom.....riiiiiggghhhhtttt.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Erik

      What if someone simply linked to it, and gave you traffic..?

      January 18, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Allen

      Wendy, nobody is condoning piracy, rather they (and I) are saying the problem is that the legislation allows *anyone* to charge *anyone* with running a website that facilitates piracy, and, by law, the site then must be removed from search results and DNS listings. The burden then falls on the owner to prove that their site is legitimate in a court of law. That includes someone falsely accusing *your* site. It's a horribly written piece of legislation that politicians and corporate media are trying to push through with the "won't someone think of the content creators!" refrain, but that refrain rings hollow when you actually look at *how* they're proposing to fight piracy.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Kat Davis

    take a look at the 16th & 17 ammendments. Until we take back the control our goverement aquired over 60 years ago they will continue doing as they please.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  10. frank

    the movie studios, music industry, book industry, are claiming 250g+ jobs lost due to copy right infringement that decreased their annual net worth. but the fact of the matter is, they are still a multi-billion dollar net worth industry. They are moving the jobs away from the US not because of how piracy impacted their net worth. It's only to make more money than what they already had, to feed the top 1% of company corporate leaders' greed. there are other ways to handle the situation which require sacrificing their already super luxurious life style to just standard luxurious life style. But of course, none of them are willing to do.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mike

    The dinosaurs that run our planet don't even use the internet, or even understand the basics of how it works. They know only money, and constant hunger to fill their fat "cheese-burger-lockers" that they call stomachs.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
  12. arthurb3

    There are plenty of other sites to use on the internet.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
  13. John

    I would write more but if the money men want this it will happen. All you people earning a living on the internet wake up and do something about it. Its your country, They govern with your permission. You can take it back this year USE IT.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  14. MDennison

    SOPA and PIPA will sacrifice our internet freedom and innovation to line the pockets of large media corporations such as Time Warner (CNN). In the end, big businesses like these will try anything regardless of ethics to make a quick buck.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  15. John

    In England we have the correct laws to handle this. The ISPs can disable a person for downloading pirated things. There are people in prison or had heavy fines to make sure it gets stopped. I am an ordinary Joe and we concider this if we get tempted. This is a much better way to deal with things. Let law enforcement get off their asses and catch the ones breaking the law. ITS STEELING.

    January 18, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ian O'Shaughnessy

      Copyright infringement is not stealing.

      There is no debate here, you are factually wrong.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sarkazein

      Is that British English or the worst spelling and grammar from a British person ever? Just curious. :)

      January 18, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
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