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. Dave

    I noticed that CNN put up a video that purports to explain SOPA, when in fact it really describes the less totalitarian OPEN Act. The video they show under the "Explain it to me" link is misleading. Could that have anything to do with the fact that CNN's parent corporation is part of the entertainment industry oligopoly whose greedy policies and corrupting influence on Washington politics have created this crisis in the first place?

    What nobody seems ready to admit is that the US already has laws on the books to stop online piracy and they are working. Virtually all of the sites accused of piracy are outside the US, which means they are simply NOT OUR PROBLEM. If copyright holders are upset that people visiting sites outside of US jurisdiction are infringing on their alleged copyrights, then they need to complain to the host country and, if necessary, work to change the laws there. Expanding US law to cover non-US sites for the benefit of the rich and greedy entertainment industry is an affront to the sovereign rights of other countries as well as to the sovereign rights of US citizens. Also, any congressperson who supports this legislation should be blacklisted themselves when it's time to go to the pools, just to see how they like it.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  2. mkb

    New laws for everything! We have lost our morality and common sense. Our libraries are crumbling, schools are in the toilet, children beat people for no reason, elderly people are left to rot in homes, beaten in their lobbies and lit on fire in eelevators. God, where have the good old days of sneaking a cigarette in the boys room and half-filling the parents liqour bottles to hide what we drank gone. My child has a child, at an age before I even got a french kiss. Thanks internet! We need to worry about bringing back the fundamentals in America, screw the internet and cell phones. The freedom is merely to corrupt and dissuade ourselves from being modest and humble servants to humanity!!

    January 18, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  3. █████ █ ████ ███


    Since most of this is about digital and other media rights, it is the media that is sold. Once you have bought a CD, you can make copies, create personal "mix" CDs, and generally copy it for your personal use which extends to sharing it with friends and family. They know this and do not fight this even though there may be some infringement and loss of potential revenue.
    But if it is never realized, then it never really existed except as a possibility.
    They can't claim future profits they never get. That's just ridiculous.

    When you buy a CD or DVD, it is just the same as buying one of those old LP records.

    Just because it is easier to make copies and share the copies with friends in these modern times should not change the way we view media rights.

    It is up to the media people to find a way to market these things in a profitable way.

    They cannot violate everyone’s rights in a bid to maximize their profits just because the market has changed.

    This is just another “bail-out” attempt, only this time the legislation is going to give them the undeserved bailout money by destroying the civil rights of all people in the process and warp the natural advancement of our personal relationships with everyone else just so they can get a few more bucks.

    And these claims of “losing money” are bogus.

    You cannot lose money you never had in the first place.
    If they tried to enforce these laws, people would just refuse to buy their stuff.
    Then they would still have a low revenue stream with nothing but oppression and crimes against humanity to show for all the trouble they went to.

    That’s just stupid and bad business.
    You shouldn’t go all fascist on people if you want their money, which many don’t have anyway.

    People in poverty cannot afford to buy that stuff in the first place, or else they would have bought their own CDs and DVDs in the first place!

    If they can borrow a copy from a friend who did pay for the media, then where is the difference between two cousins in two different countries mailing the media back and forth whenever needed?

    SOPA is bogus and unworkable and unconstltutional.

    It is bad legislation and was written to give copyright owners an unfair advantage and subsidy when they are the ones who cannot keep up with changing market conditions. Their lack of business sense is not our fault.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Anon

      You hit the nail on the head buddy!

      January 18, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  4. EricGood

    wait so what about the susie fart knockers?

    January 18, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  5. HHR

    Sure, everyone is fine with stealing other peoples intellectual property. However, if YOU wrote or composed something, YOU would want YOUR money and credit wouldn't you? That's how people with intellect can make a little money to support their families. I don't give a cat's meow if Wikipedia or Google like it or not.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • fintastic

      I aggree 100%.....

      What I see is a lot of people whining because their something for nothing is being threatened.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • anon

      dude the problem is not the concept, it's the execution.

      Current law: someone steals your copyright material. You find out about this. You lodge a complaint. The website hoster has x amount of time to take it down or face penalties.

      New law: someone steals your stuff. The GOVERNMENT goes in and SHUTS DOWN the host DNS, effectively ending its existence as we know it.

      whining for something-for-nothing? no, I'm whining because suddenly all the privileges offered by open-source communities (which have never been in trouble with copyright infringement) can now be censored by the government

      There are consequences to bad laws.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • JM

      Then I guess you don't like your smartphone or any other embedded OS device. You see the problem with this HR is that all those devices (yes, even Microsoft) use technology that came from other people for FREE (GASP!!!). It is called open source and it has led to numerous technology breakthroughs that impact your life so much that yes; you will miss them if they go away. Ironically, this bill can do just that.

      For example do you like to post on news boards? Well guess what; company X just got the patent for posting comments on news sites and now since it is their "intellectual property" all sites that you can post on are gone.

      Yes, it is an extreme jump but according to the ways these laws are made; that becomes a very dangerous possibility if they ever decide to include all domain extensions. Also; there are sites that are run by small companies in the US that do not follow the list of domain extensions that are in the bill.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ian O'Shaughnessy

      As someone who is a content creator and copyright holder, I am entirely opposed to SOPA and PIPA.

      These bills would open a can of worms that cannot be shut, allowing the government to censor what it does not like, and there would be no recourse. This would destroy the open nature of the internet and would give even more power to massive corporations (as if they needed more).

      This is an unprecedented power grab. The only people who are in favor of these bills are those who are directly benefiting from it (which is a tiny fraction of the US population).

      January 18, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • concerned

      You don't get it do you. Yes there are those that think everything on the net is free. People will still find a way to pirate. The real issue with these bills is the power they will provide to big content. Who with this bill would have the power to pull sites offline just by simply accussing them of copyright infringment, even if it is not true. Without any due process what so ever. That is where the real danger lies and why the bill itself was not written by Congree but by the MPAA lobyyists themselves.

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

    Big Media Companies must understand it will NEVER be like it was in 1990, they just need to accept it and move on. No reason to go all "China" on us because a crappy CD with only 3 good songs dosen't sell or a terrible film remake of a film that was remade before opens up to awful box office numbers...

    January 18, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
  7. AJ

    Did you see the YouTube video of that little girl singing some Nicky Minaj song? She later got to meet her on Ellen. Went viral, millions of hits.

    Under the new laws, that child is allowed to be prosecuted as a felon, despite never making a nickle off of any of it.

    Sorry, you don't use a broad sword for eye surgery. These bills are overly punitive.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • fintastic

      Yet it's ok for Youtube to make millions off of it??

      January 18, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • AJ

      I said it was overly punitive, and that is what I meant. Calling a 4 year old who sings what she heard on the radio a potential felon is wrong.

      Copyright impingement is a problem. I'd never argue it wasn't. But, the legislation, as is, is overly punitive. It would punish not just YouTube, but the 4 year old child. And the child wouldn't be hit with a fine, or a misdemeanor. The language, as it stands, calls what she did a full class felony.

      Sorry, I'm not ready to jail 4 year olds or affect their permanent records. Rewrite the legislation.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • concerned

      Fintastic – yet one of the positives for Fair Use – look it up it is actually allowed under the DMCA act

      January 18, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Andrew

    Should have known better than to come to CNN for information regarding this...

    January 18, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
  9. fintastic

    "Just because it's online doesn't mean it's not theft."


    January 18, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Marlee

    US government policing the world for corporate has broke us and made us a hated nation. Who has the right to own words anyway. Give me a break. Oops hope I didnt violate any laws in this post. Wouldnt want CNN to go down. Congress needs to get off big money train at the for the people station.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Rick

    Psst, the FAQ page at Wikipedia says you can disable javascript to get around their blackout.

    And again, I'm surprised Craigslist wasn't mentioned as one of the blackout participants considering how much CNN likes to slam them.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  12. mdubbs

    Because people that are filthy rich already need more money? Please...

    Great sources of instant information are at risk with this. I'm sorry that some crappy "artist" will only make $2 million instead of $3 million for all the "art" they give us. Along with all of them being terrible role models, druggies, and gang-bangers. Piracy will ALWAYS EXIST, these bills won't do anything to stop it, they will just make it worse for people looking for REAL INFORMATION.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eric

      Smashed that nail on the head mate.

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

    Well I dont know what timezone or planet you people are on ,but google and wiki worked just fine with nothing black. nothing like being lied to by censored nonsence news.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Mike

    For Wikipedia supporters who made donations and who disagree with Wikipedia's stupidity in shutting down their site. You can request your donation back.

    I did and I got it immediately.

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

      Cool, since you did that, I'll just give them more since I wholeheartedly support their decision.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • JMM

      Why was it stupid to shut down? Google should have done the same.

      January 18, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • KidZoloft


      January 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • nolan

      Indian Giver

      January 18, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • cliffanders

      i hope you do not whine if this bill passes , and your freedom is taken away

      January 19, 2012 at 11:32 am | Report abuse |
  15. Eric

    Funny thing- Most people don't know that piracy actually doesn't hurt many bottom lines. If you look at sales number from the recording, film, television, and gaming industries you'll find that they are doing a LOT better than before piracy was "such a huge problem" Their issue? They simply want the legal legs to prosecute every tom, dick, and harry that accidentally heard too many bars of their track on some off the wall youtube video. Make no mistake, internet content delivery has been vastly more beneficial to their sales efforts than it has to those of content pirates.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
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