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. M

    Surprised to see CNN mentioning this, isn't CNN under Time Warner and isn't Warner supporting SOPA? No media blackout for you guys? Good.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Richard Pichard

      CNN is blacking this out by not letting me make new comments "you have presented duplicate.....

      January 18, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
  2. BetternthanU

    Our government only understands 1 thing Action not words, what happened when it use to be a HONOR to represent our country not just wanting to be in congress for the bigger paycheck while cutting education and denying medical help to those in need thi scountry is nothing more than a hollow shell of what the founders wanted it to be the word freedom no longer applies to the U.S.A. only word that applies here is currency

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

    are you kidding me, do you know how bad these bills can destroy the internet!?!? if many of the websites are censored in the US, then you may find that it can cause problems with the rest of the world. this blackout is very unwanted but is nessisary to show how badly this can infringe on the third amendment. i am so agrivated that if i was to personally go to the congressmen who made this my first few words (and i have to be harsh here) would be, "WHAT THE F@#$ WERE YOU THINKING?!"

    January 18, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • BetternthanU

      this is the U.S.A. you have no rights haven't you heard congress is Xing them off one by one

      January 18, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Freelancer

    This whole "blackout" thing is reminicant of the "occupy Wall Street" deal. There's nothing to get all upset about that you CENSOR YOUR OWN WEBSITE for 24 hours. I own my own business, and I have my own website - I wouldn't dream of blacking it out for 24 hours - anyone who would must be on drugs! Can we please get back to living our lives now?

    January 18, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • BetternthanU

      So, you want to get on with out lives and by not caring YOU may not black out your own website ... but you are giving congress the right to do so as they choose ? this is why our country has fallen so far. so few willing to Stand up and fight back against oppression, and so many willing to roll over and take it. if we continue in our current path merely speaking a word will have you locked up the government needs to know its boundries and its our job as the people to enforce it

      January 18, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Reading Prophecy

    I found reports about rosewell in new ██████ . It located ██████ 51. hahahhahahahhah

    January 18, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mattias

      how u make the blackout bar!?!

      January 18, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Benjamin

    Glad to see CNN FINALLY saying something about this. You guys spent months not even mentioning it – wonderfully unbiased reporting. I expect Fox News or NBC to try to pull the wool over my eyes in either direction, not CNN. The fact that it took you this long to do anything has made me rethink watching CNN for my news.

    With that said, I also consider that you actually wrote an unbiased and informative article about this issue (although the cynic in me thinks that's partially out of fear of reprisals from the internet), so you get a few brownie points back.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Daven

    Ironically, your parent company, that supports SOPA, would see CNN.com taken down because of this article and its use of other people's tweets in it, if SOPA were to pass.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  8. HoT sTuFf ** ^_^

    haha this is so funny i love writing random posts !!XD

    January 18, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  9. KWL

    CNN and the other major media outlets are a joke, and the SOPA issue is a perfect example of why. This bill has been in the works for MONTHS, yet it took this blackout for any of you to do any real reporting on it. Corporate news serves thier corporate masters, NOT THE PEOPLE.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Joe

    The SOPA bill is only one in a line of ways for the American government to stifle the freedoms of the citizens of it's country. This is a step backwards for society. People need to open their eyes and see that we're turning into the dictatorships we've always fought against. This won't stop at copyright laws. We are going to be cut off from the rest of the world. Don't go down without a fight.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |

    SPARE US THE DRAMA, there were no "blackout", just some dark bars over their logos or name. you could still use google and etc...

    jeez....i swear, everything is sensationalize these days.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  12. us1776

    The are already copyright laws on the books.

    As an author you already have the right to ask law enforcement to take action if you find someone infringing your copyright. You already have a right to sue for damages.

    What you don't have the right to do is to disrupt the entire Internet because someone violates your copyright.

    You do not have the right to ask that youtube or facebook be shutdown because one of their users is violating your copyright.

    There are already sufficient laws on the books that protect your copyright.


    January 18, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
  13. government cheese

    The bill's language is too broad. Define what the DOJ will be doing and I might be for it. In the past, broad laws have been highjacked to mean what the user in office wants it to means.

    This bill gives power to hackers because of its broad language. If someone wants to shut down a media outlet, all they have to do is make a post and the DOJ moves in. With today's hackers and OWS anarchists, giving these nuts more power is crazy.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Richard Pichard

    CNN and other media mouth pieces don't like reporting this. It should be on the front page of this corporate hack site.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
  15. richp

    The amazing part is you have a bunch of idiots in DC, most of which have a hard time operating a surround sound remote, deciding on something they even have less than a clue about.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
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