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. wiki

    oops!! we even blocked information on SOPA and PIPA!!

    January 18, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • kristinawho

      um, no they didn't


      January 18, 2012 at 11:10 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Scott

    The problem with these bills is that they would subtly open the door for a degree of censorship similar to that of China. There's no doubt that copyrighted material should be protected, however as with most things, people HAVE to look beyond the surface. The way these bills are worded lend themselves to "mission creep." What starts off as a law to shut down sites for illegally publishing copyrighted material would easily be manipulated to shut down websites simply because they don't comply with mainstream POVs. Take WikiLeaks for example, these bills would DEFINITELY be used to limit access to that site in the US. Bills like these would make it legal to shut down sites like that and there would no recourse to overturn the decision... That's the true menace of these bills, websites can be shut down on a whim.

    Furthermore, shutting down a site and making unavailable in the US will not stop the copyright infringement issue. Let's say PirateBay is truncated here in the US, people in Canada can still access it, right? So what happens when PirateBay is cutoff in the US and people in other countries can still access... do we send in our Black Ops to snuff out the website at the source? Do we impose trade sanctions on the hosting country until THEY remedy the problem? Where does it stop?

    Also, these bills do absolutely nothing to stop the people selling bootleg DVDs on the street corner.

    January 18, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nah

      A slipper slope fallacy, eh?

      I guess you must be against all copyright laws then? After all, those laws "could" just chip away at free speech and lead to censorship, right?

      January 18, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Alienative

    Funny SOPA means soup in Spanish, but I digress. Censorship is the beginning of the end of freedom.

    January 18, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jessica Brant

    Being a website owner who post creative writing, poetry and art by our members BlogNostics.net feels we are responsible for protecting our users intelectual rights. Potecting our members against piracy is of our utmost concern. Passing a law like SOPA is rediculous. Government needs to stay focuse on shutting down piracy sites. WE SUPPORT THE BLACKOUT.
    Jessica Brant

    January 18, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • SilentBoy741

      If you're running a website whose members are posting poetry and creative writing that would fall under SOPA, then that means they're *copying* someone else's material, and should be shut down. It also means you're creative writers aren't that "creative".

      January 19, 2012 at 2:29 am | Report abuse |
  5. juan m

    back times hitler

    January 18, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Flora

    Our site is just a small gardening site, but we joined this black out and have plans to be back up Thursday at 12 AM. We hope every website owner joined in (one way or another) to send Congress a clear message that we the people don't want or need them to censor the internet. Hopefully, they got the hint. *wink*

    January 18, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Flora


    January 18, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Brad

    To use wikipedia you can turn of javascript in your web browser 🙂

    Site still functions, you just don't get the black out!

    January 19, 2012 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Brad

      P.S. lucky i'm in Australia, but NO to SOPA and PIPA!!!

      January 19, 2012 at 12:03 am | Report abuse |
  9. PdeC

    Flickr members are having slanging matches even as they darken their photos over the issue. http://www.flickr.com/help/forum/en-us/72157628923217717/

    January 19, 2012 at 12:13 am | Report abuse |
  10. phil

    I like this Bill. Asian Countries stealing videos and musics from youtube and briadcasting it in their TV channels. Please watch challem WETV (patner of Kairali TV) in Dishnetwork. Channel no is 801, 797. you can see most of the American music albums in their TV shows.

    January 19, 2012 at 12:34 am | Report abuse |
  11. B

    Oh my god what a horrible day.

    Martin Luther help us, go away Inquistion.

    Martin Luther....His translation of the Bible into the language of the people (instead of Latin) made it more accessible, causing a tremendous impact on the church and on German culture. It fostered the development of a standard version of the German language, added several principles to the art of translation,[4] and influenced the translation into English of the King James Bible.[5] His hymns influenced the development of singing in churches.[6] (Wikipedia)

    May the Reformation win, please help maintain our Enlightenment.

    January 19, 2012 at 12:51 am | Report abuse |
  12. dead666cat

    lets make a new second internet a internet in a internet ! and blackball them

    January 19, 2012 at 12:51 am | Report abuse |
  13. heather

    This whole thing is getting a bit to close to the government being able to control the books we can read and handing out food rations for comfort. What happened to a nation run by the people for the people? When the vast majority of your people are screaming out in protest the politicians should listen, complete and total disregard for your people is just a gross over use of power and one of the many things that hopefully my generation will be able to change about the system.

    January 19, 2012 at 12:52 am | Report abuse |
  14. LT

    Personally, I disagree with the bills themselves. It is my opinion that they would open the doors to Internet Censorship. Whether or not you share this opinion is totally up to you. Most of us, whether you agree with the bills or not, can agree; however, that our government should pretty much focus on things that matter to us like the economy, homelessness, health care, etc.

    If you disagree with the bills then I urge you all to contact your elected officials and tell them that you disagree with it and not to vote in favor of the bills. If you agree with the bills then still send them a message that they should really put their effort into things that matter to us all.

    January 19, 2012 at 1:11 am | Report abuse |
  15. Augie5

    Even if SOPA and PIPA were to pass, do you honestly think that pirating would stop? The "internet" is smarter then anyone who tries to draft a bill to prevent piracy. I do not support piracy, but all this would do is hurt those who are not pirating anything more. If you want to pirate something, and you are smart enough all that these two bills do is add a speed bump to the process. The fact that the people up in Washington preach that the government needs to not regulate anything are the ones saying that the internet and what I am able to search and see needs to be regulated as well? Hypocrisy at its finest.

    What they should do is address the fact that when I legally buy stuff from sites, they can then sell my personal information including my last 4# of my CC to people who then proceed to call me and claim that I won a prize in hopes of me giving up my full CC# and then rip me off. THAT is ok for a company to do though :/

    January 19, 2012 at 2:07 am | Report abuse |
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