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. cebundy

    They can take our jobs, our schools, our right to congregate, our to choose, our right to trial, our right to free speech, our access to heath care... I guess right-wing congress will only protect guns, Christianity and the right of corporations to enslave us!
    It's no longer the government of the people.

    January 18, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Gary

    Under SOPA, if you upload one Michael Jackson song, you can get 5 years in prison. 1 year more than the doctor who killed him.

    January 18, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Nathan

    Wrong! Google did NOT go dark today. They displayed a banner. What else do we need to know about an article written by Time Warner, a supporter of SOPA?

    January 18, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Teo

    I love how congress is casually just moving this forward as if this wont destroy a lot of jobs and artist sites online, yet they complain that there is never enough jobs. huh

    January 18, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nah

      This is equivalent to crying about the lost jobs that occur when counterfeit good manufacturers are shut down.

      Some things take priority. Piracy isn't one of them.

      Cry somewhere else.

      January 18, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Tami Adams

    I can not..well yes I can believe the Bias of the left and right media news and their special interests that only serve their purposes. Sad day when I have to go to BBC News or other International sites to get more news do to the selective censorship of the US Media. They fail to mention the massive grassroot supporters who are supporting the SOPA Protest. Whose voices are rising up!! They just fail to report that aspect of it. Censorhip exists and this has been a blatant example! We need one place where freedom still exist! Someone pointed out how the music industry back in the 60s were terrified of blank cassettes as an example. We need our blank canvas we have found on the internet and we need to protect it! Thanks CNN and FOX but we can mold our own minds!! Surprise!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
  6. KatranM

    The worst part about the STOP ONLINE PUBLISHING ACT? It's so poorly constructed that it doesn't do a thing to combat piract! I suppose Congress will next tackle crime in cities by removing the street signs so that criminals can't find their way around. That'll do it! 😀

    January 18, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Report abuse |
  7. PhillyGuy

    As a professional in the music industry for years, I can only say this, it's about friggin time. I'm soo sick and tired of everyone talking about freedom of speech. Well tell me this, does freedom of speech include stealing? Because that's what so many people are trying to advocate not supporting this legislation. Just because you can see someone else's music, or movies, or whatever from several sites doesn't mean the owner of that song or movie gave you permission to look at it.

    If an artist wants to give you their songs away for free, then you have the owner's authority to spread it around the internet or where ever. But if a movie director or record producer doesn't want their property bootlegged, why are people objecting to that? That should be your right to protect your content so no one steals it. That makes perfect sense to me.

    And if you really think that the RIAA and Hollywood are the evil empire, then it's really simple people, don't buy their product! But to just use the excuse that big govt. is trying to control me from downloading something that I didn't PAY for, that was NEVER authorized to be given away for FREE, is just making excuses for illegal activities. For goodness sakes, a song costs $.99 ! You can't tell me that you can't find $1 for a song. That's just blatant hypocrisy.

    January 18, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Antonio

      Nobody is saying that it is OK to steal music. The argument is that the end doesn't justify the means. They are punishing the hosts of internet (highways/storage), because people may be using them to share copyrighted material. It's like saying that you are going to punish highways or storage facilities because someone decides to transport or store marijuana in them.

      January 18, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nah

      antonio: "It's like saying that you are going to punish highways or storage facilities because someone decides to transport or store marijuana in them."

      False analogy. Why? Because the intent and knowledge of the highway or storage facility is missing.

      It's more like punishing a forum that intends or knowingly abets people in distributing illegal goods.

      January 18, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • RadZap

      Make money like all musicians before you, PLAY LIVE GIGS! Many of us make our sole living on the internet. Having SOPA hanging over our heads threatening a random shutdown at any time would be MURDEROUS.

      If SOPA passes I assure you that the backlash vs the Music and Movie & TV business will be worse than you imagine, starting with mass boycotts. I'll make sure to add you to the list PhillyGuy.

      January 18, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Laloo

      As a professional in the Music industry you have no idea on how the internet works at all. Basically this legislation is ask companies to change the way the internet is structured. Which hurts companies who have no connection to piracy. It will leave open holes in security, etc... It's the use of piracy as a scare tactic to have the Music/Movie industry to control content without due process. There is no evidence that piracy has hurt sales as well (in some countries it's shown as an incentive to buy)... most of the RIAA numbers are just made up and has no evidence to back it. Tell me what's the difference between in fines a of teen shoplifting a CD from a store from a teen getting it off the internet...the answer is $100k... even if it's for there own use and they didn't post it anywhere. Oddly this hasn't stopped people from downloading and SOPA and PIPA won't either.

      January 18, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • mickey1313

      learn the diference between private domaine and public why dont you. The internet is for everyone. If you do not want your music "shared" then keep it off the net. , losser

      January 18, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • SAVE THE WEB!!

      A Music Industry Professional. Wow, you must be a big shot....did you sport a pony tail and sign hair metal bands in the 80s? Are you still learning how the internet works and where you fit in? Okay here's the deal. Piracy is wrong. However you need to go after just those web sites not social sites where people share videos or audio of themselves which is why SOPA and PIPA misses the mark. Here's an example, I post a video of my vacation and the camera catches a stores sign lets say Mac Donalds Arche's. Copyright Infringement. I post a video and a radio or some music happens to be playing the background. again, copyright infringement. Uhm I take some artwork or photos and I create something else with it and then I post it in a forum teasing a friend. Yep copyright infringement. Your SOPA PIPA is way over the top. You don't get to tell me how to live! Do you understand that? FOCUS ON PIRACY AND PROTECTING your media by going after pirate bay and stay out of my life. Not making enough money selling old metal music? You can ditch the old dieing business model of opening a "record store" to sell cd's which is probably the only thing you understand and open up a market place website like Amazon or Itunes. Less overhead more money and plenty of people who still buy mp3s for a buck. Itunes is estimated to generate 13 billion dollars in 2013. Face it PhillyGuy your going to need to stop being lazy and get off your @$$ and move with times. CD's are now like casette tapes... Speaking of which, in the 80s my older brother used to record songs off the radio to tape and make mix tapes and give them to his friends. Was that like file sharing? I guess the record companies were losing money on him too right? Last, any money that the record labels or movie houses talk about losing was never theres to begin with because your assuming those people would have actually buy it. Now I agree they have a right to protect their media. I agree with them on that but trying to generate additional sympathy by claiming losses. yeah, not buying that one...

      January 18, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Report abuse |
  8. KatranM

    It's ironic that CNN's parent company, Time Warner, is supporting SOPA and PIPA, when all we have to do is report that some iReporter has posted a copyrighted photo or video, and that's grounds for getting cnn.com blacklisted until the complaint is cleared up.

    Oh, wait, I forgot. CNN will get preferential treatment by the Department of Justice and doesn't have to worry about it. It's just millions of smaller businesses and websites that have to be afraid of unfounded complaints or of some isolated schmoe posting copyrighted material on some random website sharing their domain - not even on THEIR website - and getting that domain shut down.

    It'll kill millions of jobs and paralyze venture capitalists from investing in new start-ups - the next Facebook, Twitter or Amazon couldn't get off the ground if these bills are in place - but just so long as Hollywood is happy, we don't care how many jobs it kills, do we?

    (of course, Hollywood will be less happy when they discover that pirates don't USE domain names and will just keep on exchanging files illegally using IP addresses... thus these bills are utterly useless for what they were designed to do. But I guess old media doesn't know how the internet works any more than Congress.)

    January 18, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nah

      katran: "It's ironic that CNN's parent company, Time Warner, is supporting SOPA and PIPA, when all we have to do is report that some iReporter has posted a copyrighted photo or video, and that's grounds for getting cnn.com blacklisted until the complaint is cleared up."

      Please, for the love of god, read the Legislation before forming an opinion about it.

      CNN could only be "punished" - enjoined from allowing users to post illegal content - if they intend their site to facilitate piracy, or their site is primarily dedicated to piracy.

      January 18, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Laloo

      "Nah" you are the idiot... obviously you have no idea how the internet works. Please read up on that before you have an opinion on how to change it.

      As shown with the DMCA and the Patriot act, companies/people are going to be using it for things that the law wasn't intended for. You are giving the rope to the people who are going to hang you with.

      January 18, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Herp

      Nah: "Please, for the love of god, read the Legislation before forming an opinion about it.

      CNN could only be "punished" – enjoined from allowing users to post illegal content – if they intend their site to facilitate piracy, or their site is primarily dedicated to piracy."

      Not true. I've read the bill, trust me. The bill would require website owners (CNN, etc.) to monitor and track all data and information posted/uploaded to their website. So, if an iReporter does post something thats in violation of a copyright law, and a company in good faith reports it, the Attorney General could require ISP's and Search Engines to block access to it. Without a court report (See Sect. 102(b)(c) and Sect. 104 of the SOPA bill at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c112:H.R.3261:)

      So you, sir, read the bill before you post several comments making people sound retarded.

      January 18, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Lee

    This is corrupt legislation that supports the few at the expense of the many. OWS should be in Hollywood protesting especially since the elite there make many times the amount of any corporate CEO elite. The media industry has chosen a business model that leaves them open to piracy. That is their problem, not the general public who will foot this bill and suffer the civil rights downgrade. It would be the same thing if Best Buy decided they didn't want to have to hire their own security and insist that the public pay to have public police staff their stores. This is no different. Every other business pays and manages their own security.

    January 18, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nah

      lee: "The media industry has chosen a business model that leaves them open to piracy."

      Are you...retarded?

      The music and film industry encrypt their DVDs and music to the extent that's possible. That hackers can get around the encryptions, and then copy and distribute the movies or music, is irrelevant.

      What are they supposed to do? Make music but never publish it? Make films but never show them?

      January 18, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Laloo

      "Nah" what are all those Steam engine people going to do with the Combustion engine comes out? Oh wait.

      The answer is they need a better business model and adapt. It's even been shown that with SOPA/PIPA hackers can easily get around the legislated roadblocks.

      The corporate music industry has been around for umm... 100 years or so. There was life before and life after them. There are a lot of people making money on their music and movies without them.

      January 18, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Report abuse |
  10. William Downey

    thats like saying if i can't have it then no one can.

    January 18, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
  11. brian


    January 18, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Report abuse |
  12. James

    In one CNN report it claimed "The Pirate Bay" hosts copyrighted materials. It doesn't. It hosts torrent files which point to hosts on the Internet that do have copyrighted materials. You obtain torrent files from servers like The Pirate Bay and then use them to find materials elsewhere. Should of done you homework more thoroughly.

    January 18, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Eric

    Does something need to be done about online piracy? Yes, it's illegal. Are SOPA or PIPA the answer? Absolutely not. We're throwing a blanket of censorship over the entire population that won't be effective. The hackers who are skilled enough to get pirated content online will continue to find a way to get pirated content online, leaving the rest of us to suffer the injustice of an industrial pay-off.

    January 18, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Alex

    If CNN's parent company Time Warner is for SOPA, how can any of this article be consider objective reporting?

    January 18, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Mark Kulacz

    The fundamental problem is that it is impossible to "own" information. Its free. It is everyone's.

    Information is not created – it is only pointed out, or found. Music is not created – every possible order of notes already existed. The artist merely points it out.

    We create nothing – only discover and learn. And those actions cannot be owned.

    Besides – information is useless unless it is understood and actionable. Making the secrets of brain surgery public doenst devalue the services of the doctor one bit.

    January 18, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Report abuse |
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