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. Richard

    The republic died more than ten years ago (June 21, 1788 – October 26, 2001). We are now witnessing its decomposition. It was stabbed in the back by those who swore to defend it. Are you surprised? The answer to our dilemma is SECESSION. Consider it.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Laloo

    Watch this video to understand the problems with SOPA: http://vimeo.com/31147134

    January 18, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  3. ML

    If anything needs to be censored, it's our so-called elected representatives.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jerry

    This is reactionary legislation developed by big media to protect its copywrited material. I get it, however, the real issue here is big media wants to protect its antiquated distribution system. People want access on demand, and there is no reason to pay even five dollars for a crappy movie you will never watch again. Lower the cost, create on demand distribution, and you can retain revenue while accomodating what the real demand. Bandwidth demands will create far more jobs than any estimated jobs lost by pirated material. Why do I have to suscribe to a satelite service I don't want to watch the football team I want to see? Because the NFL too, has an antiquated distribution system for it's product.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  5. CanHasDIY

    Yes, you can view Wikipedia, just do as their website clearly states and use a mobile or turn Javascript. I guess this is what you call "journalism," CNN? Of course, to find that out would entail clicking the "Learn More" link on Wikipedia's page, and I'd bet dollars to pesos that learning more is the last thing Time Warner wants people to do, considering.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
  6. sumday

    listen we live in a new age, one filled with technology only dreamed about 60yrs ago. These copy right laws have/are becoming out dated, and have for the most part held humans/humanity back solely so someone can make a profit- I thought of something first so pay me for life- You can't use your own equipment, your own time, your own money to do something I've done pay me. The truth is far more than SOPA or PIPA we really need to abolish the intellectual property right laws. Intellectual property laws are do more to hold human back for the sole purpose of profit than they do to benefit society.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jim

    If you want people to take you seriously don't write run-on sentences in all caps, and learn how to spell.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Pete/Ark

    So instead of spending some of thier multi-millions in profits for lobbying and PR they're gonna incovenience others to make THEM do something ?? It's kinda like kicking your dog since your mad at your boss. This isn't "protest" it's a childish temper tantrum.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pipy

      It's called "raising awareness", give me a break.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Pete/Ark

    So instead of spending some of thier multi-millions in profits for lobbying and PR they're gonna incovenience others to make THEM do something ?? It's kinda like kicking your dog since you're mad at your boss. This isn't "protest" it's a childish temper tantrum.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Navi555

      Actually they are. They have been lobbying like crazy, as well as started an ad campaign. But when this was being drafted, non of the tech companies, despite their opposition, were even called to testify.

      Moreover, they want you to know about it so that you also can do something about it. I don't know about you, but I'd like to know when my rights are being taken away so I could fight back. But since the media are SOPA Supporters, they wont tell you, or wouldn't until the Tech companies went on strike against the bill.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • MB

      I'm sorry, are those free services being down an inconvenience to you?

      Better get used to it – if SOPA and PIPA pass, you won't be getting much out of a *lot* of sites soon.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ryoko

      good sir, i don't think you quite comprehend what's going on here.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jae

      Where were all these places when the patriot act passed? Where were u all speaking up when bush and cheney allowed the govt to hack into our PVT PHONES ILLEGALLY!!!!

      January 18, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Factcheck

      CNN please. It's "Parlez vous francais?" not "Vous parlez francais?". In an entire article, you have one sentence in a foreign language and you couldn't take the time to check with someone who actually speaks French? It's not exactly an uncommon language and sorry, but Google Translate is often just plain wrong.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • BioHzrd

      It got everyone talking and emailing their representatives to give them wikipedia back. That's gotta do something.

      January 18, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Report abuse |
  10. GeoD

    First off. Thank you to all that supported this protest. That said. I find it utterly amazing that several bigwig internet companies can shutdown some services for 12hrs and afterwards the lawmakers back down from the anti-piracy bill. What a bunch of gutless turds. I think they realized this is an election year. But, the Occupy protest has been going on since September 17, 2011 has seen little to no results. Maybe if "Occupy" owned a few big internet services/companies they could have turned them off for 12hrs and the movement would be successful. Amazing...

    January 18, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Todd

      You're point is irrelevant. You clearly dont understand what you're talking about, and I'm going to guess you're just being contrarian for the sake of it.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • GeoD

      @Todd No. I know exactly what I'm talking about. 'Im comparing the fact that there has been a large movement of people standing out in the cold on their dime and time (probably because they lost their house) and next to nothing has been done. But, several internet companies can flip a switch off for 12hrs and and interrupt our precious internet and in turn the law makers that were so adamantly supporting the passing of the anti-piracy bills suddenly back off from moving any further. It all comes back to corporate greed. These internet companies hold the money so they can makeup the rules to suit their needs. Now, I hope I made my self clear enough for you this time.

      January 18, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Dixie Normous

    can you imagine all the nasty things that Google logo is doing behind that black box??!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Navi555

      If your on Reddit, let me know so I can upvote you once the strike is over.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Draconis

    * band together

    January 18, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  13. OrangeW3dge

    Board up the libraries and burn all the books (except for the ones we sell you) and then burn those too so you have to pay for single viewing each time.

    January 18, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  14. OrangeW3dge

    You cannot create Civility by passing laws and enforcing them with a Police State. Fahrenheit 451

    January 18, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Post-college student

    Side note: Really, college students? Shouldn't you be smart enough to know how to turn off JavaScript so that you can still view all Wiki articles?

    January 18, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • BioHzrd

      College students?...How many adults couldn't and wouldn't figure that one out or even know where to look on the computer. Don't assume everyone is a tech savvy as you.

      January 18, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • GeoD

      Back in ancient times our people had these things called...books! There were certain books called encyclopedias. There, one would be able to find information to help them write their papers! >;)

      January 18, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Report abuse |
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