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. Dork Avec Une Spork

    The main problem here is that ISPs can write a letter with no evidence saying another ISP pirated something, and that ISP will then be shut down without due process. Should internet pirating be stopped? Yes, but these acts set us up for blacklisting the likes of which we haven't seen since the McCarthy era.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
  2. joe the plumber

    Of course the media corporations support the act. They would love nothing more than to charge a dollar every time you hear a song, every time you hum the tune and god forbid you try to use some background music in a video of your kids, they'll sue the pants off you. Media corporations are not just bullies, they're FACISTS.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
  3. john

    I don't see how anyone can enforce any internet so called piracy, its too open. I can see where some information does harm but I don't see more regulation doing anything about it, its just too hard to enforce and my rights have allready been abused enough.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Dad

    Saying "Just because it's online doesn't mean it's not theft." addresses this bill as if it only targets piracy.. It fails to mention the above and beyond portion of holding sites liable for everything their users post/reference. This effects of this on any new fast growing websites that are based on peer communication in the fashion of reddit or facebook would have a much harder time taking off if they were slammed with lawsuits because a couple bad users linked 4 second video of the lion king. I'm going to get targeted for even mentioning a scene in the lion king!!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Trista

    If you hit the "Stop" button on your browser before the wiki article switches to the blackout message, you can see the article. It works for me, anyway (using Chrome).

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

    TimeWarner/CNN distorts its coverage of this issue by claiming these bills are focused on piracy. They also ban speech related to health care (i.e., prevent sites from reporting on the positive health benefits of herbs and vitamins) and could be used to take down sites that carry "incorrect" political speech. All it would take to remove a Web site for a year or more would be a bogus claim of copyright infringement. This issue is about control of the Internet - not piracy.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jeff Frank (R-Ohio) "Right Wing Insanity"

    Freedom of Speech and new entrepeneur business on thr internet....HISTORY!

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

    IF you think someone has violated your copyright, file a DMCA. It's time that we look seriously at what rights are important to us. Are the "rights" of 6 giant media companies more important than the first amendment? I don't think so, and if congress does, they should expect to be unemployed come November.

    January 18, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eric

      Sounds good, the louts we sent to govern in 2010 have already earned a pink slip in my book... Maybe we should just hire Romney as our special consultant to go in and fire them one at a time. He does proclaim an affinity for the process of letting people take a walk...

      January 18, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Aaron.Z

    Personally, I think it is appalling that this congress, which has the competency level of a 3rd grader and an approval rating at about 11% is going to try to force this upon us. I'm sorry but everything this Congress has done in the past year has been bad for the american public and no this! Keep up @$$ hats all of you will be voted out promptly in November and I cannot wait. And I'm sorry but people defending this are just as stupid as Congress, read whats in the bill and you will understand WHY WE ARE ALL UP IN ARMS OVER THIS. It's not about piracy, its about more corporate fat cats manipulating the system to get more money from us and limit our freedoms.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  10. People on the Internet

    This bill has NOTHING to do with piracy, and every halfwit knows that. It is way to un-effective to fight actual piracy, and its worded fuzzy and can be bent and interpreted in many ways. It's much more a bill for a government controlled internet to block "inconvenient" sites than a bill which would decrease piracy. BAD bill and an embarrassment since it would only support a very few corporates a LAWYERS while the pirates would laugh about it. Don't be foolish and believe its about piracy. There is MUCH more at stake here.

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

    It's sad that cnn isn't doing their part in protesting SOPA, they have a part to play in this too.

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

      the article states that CNN's parent company is FOR the legislation... Perhaps we should all stop clicking the little banners on here and such so they can see that stance have an impact to their bottom line.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  12. b1975

    Hollywood and music companies are looking for excuses to justify there old business model and try to justify lower sales on stuff most people would not buy anyway. Its no different then back when people had tape decks and put the toilet paper in the top of the tape and dubbed a tape from a friend. Same concept, different technology. They cant say its lost revenue because most people who download stuff would not buy it anyway even if they could get rid all piracy. It would just go back like it was. Borrowing a copy of whatever from a friend and dubbing it LOL!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Eric

    Hear hear!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matthew

      The web has become so incredibly valuable to all of us. Without the information that I am able to find today not only would I lose my rights but my business would take a dramatic hit. I oppose these bills and have took all measures possible to stop these bills from being passed. Congress needs to turn their attention to more important matters than piracy. My best friend lost her house 3 days ago, focus on finding her somewhere to live or a job where she isn't competing against 5,000 other unemployed people every time she goes in for an interview. Congress is the people who are stealing from us..

      January 18, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
  14. James D

    Copyright infringement is not theft, theft implies the deprivation of said object from the rightful owner. If I make a perfect copy of the mona lisa, I did not steal the mona lisa, it would still be right there in the Louvre. Copyright infringement is infringement, nothing more, nothing less.

    Also, the doctrine of lost sale is complete phooey. 90% of pirating is committed by 10% of pirates, do you honestly expect me to believe that if piracy was completely stopped, those 10% would rather spend thousands of dollars a month on that content?

    January 18, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • b1975

      Exactly, If anything piracy helps sales I think. For example, pirate downloads Avatar which has prob made close to 3 billion dollars worldwide. Pirate tells friends who don't pirate about Avatar and friends go out and buy it. Word of mouth speaks volumes (free advertisement) vs the millions these companies spend on advertisement.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  15. tobryant

    How are they planning to enforce this law even if it passes? We can't even stop people from coming over our well armed border and now we are going to try and police the internet? This isnt even a real bill if it gets passed.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
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