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. Dean

    It's funny how people seem to think if it's entertainment they have every right to steal it, but they would never think of walking into a corner store and taking whatever they want. Why not go steal some popcorn to go with the movie you ripped off? I can understand why Google wants to stop any enforcement, because it would hinder their business of stealing author's books.

    What's that, Mr. Photographer, you say you had some photos stolen? Too bad, go get a job at McDonalds.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      What if I used techno magic to turn one popcorn into enough popcorn for everybody?

      January 18, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
  2. total non sense

    There only one thing to know: anyone who support SOPA in any shape or form need to be jailed at once for high treason PERIOD. it is not even open to discussion.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Cesar The Chorizo Champ of Chihuahua

    Shut down the internet!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
  4. learn how to read

    Wikipedia TELLS you how to "bypass" the blackout.
    It's just javascript that's executed after the page is loaded...
    They did this on purpose!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Joseph Austin

    Did the Senate black out its own website in protest of the protest? I get "site not available" for both of my NC senators (one Dem, one Rep). And the House site was running unusually slow!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Thor

    Pirates voting and speaking on laws that are anti-pirate oriented just seems......off!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jack Sparrow

    This is the Tale of Captain Jack Sparrow. PIRATE!
    Arg mates. Kill em all and ask questions later.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Terrell Gibbs

    I want to know how to blackout my own Site

    January 18, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  9. IveNoClue

    So much for freedom of speech..... As a parent, as a consumer, it is MY job to censor what I believe should be censored within my home NOT the governments. If this bill passes, I'll be renouncing my US Citizenship and moving to a country that believes in the rights of the people to voice what they will and make their own decisions on censorship.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • BigMan

      Hey, I hear Somalia is nice this time of year. Since your making piracy synomonous with freedom of speech, that might be the country your looking for.

      These bills are pointed at sites overseas selling pirated copies of copyrighted materials. It may be poorly worded (what's new?), but they're working on it.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Sterling

    Notably absent from this piece: one single person, even among the "proponents", actually stating that SOPA or PIPA as written are a good idea. There's a reason for that, and I- as well as virtually every educated internet user who isn't employed by an enormous corporation or corporate lobbying group, and even many who are- oppose these horrendous bills.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
  11. magnus

    The problem with this bill is that it was written by Congress with rich people's interest. I hate politicians and they have no idea what they are doing and how this bill will evoke a Slippery Slope of censorship. Does anyone really trust Congress?

    January 18, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Kaydee

    Nothing more than the liberal media (internet) redistributing wealth!!! Taking from those who put forth the time and investment and allowing those who cannot do for themselves to steal it!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave P

      Opposition to these bills isn't about enabling piracy. In fact, these bills won't stop piracy at all (techies are in universal agreement on that point). But these bills will allow for big media companies to go on a free-for-all in the courts, and web sites will be forced to disallow user-submitted content or risk being shut down (because if even one user, like you or me, even breathes a word about piracy, it's court time). So you'll lose your ability to post comments on CNN about how liberals want to redistribute wealth. That's what you want?

      January 18, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Laloo

      Do you have any idea what you are talking about? This is not about Liberal or Conservative... this is about"freedom." The problem is certain corporations want the right to override "due process"... which means Gulity until proven innocent. Also this was written by people who have no idea on how the internet works, basically they are asking for companies to rewrite the code for the entire internet because some teenager is sharing Britney Spears... does that make sense? The numbers for the music companies losing money to priacy is waaaay over blown (basically fear mongering). This is protectionist legislation through and through.

      CNN which is own by Time Warner (a movie company) is for this crap... which is the reason they are sort of twisting their explanation of SOPA and PIPA. The same with Fox news, MSNBC, etc... they aren't to be trusted on this issue.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Dave P

    This article wrongly suggests that those opposed to SOPA/PIPA want to protect their ability to engage in light piracy. That's not the reason at all.

    The problem is this: in addition to targeting web sites that directly provide pirated content (duh), the bills also target any sites that link to such places. The wording is so loose that it includes any sites that even hint at how to find them. And we're not just talking about the content in (for instance) CNN articles. It's one thing to tell a site to censor the content that it directly publishes (that's bad enough). But keep in mind that lots of sites allow user-submitted content, like these comments under a CNN article. If my user-submitted comment says "The goal of SOPA/PIPA is to shut down The Pirate Bay", then my submission is making people aware of the existence of The Pirate Bay, which could drive people to that site. So if CNN doesn't review every comment and immediately remove this one, a big media company could instruct the government to "black-out" CNN for failure to stop users from spreading knowledge about something that coporation find disagreeable (anything that challenges the bottom line is disagreable). Of course, big media companies would have little reason to shut down CNN (it's owned by big media company). But if this were a web site that made its money hosting user-generated content, which is stuff that the established media companies don't reap royalties from, then there's a strong motivation to see that site shut down, leaving corporate media as the only alternative (back in the good old days, movies like Casablanca didn't have to compete against home-grown mini-movies or videos of kittens). All it takes is a team of lawyers and an "accusation". These bills provide scant due-process. A large enough target could protect itself by dispatching a crack team of lawyers to challenge the accusation (they'd better charter a private jet, because the law acts quickly, for a change). But how many smaller sites can afford that?

    This means that user-submitted content (like these comments, or status updates, or forum posts, or product reviews, or kitten videos) would either have to be heavily monitored and censored by the site that hosts them (very expensive, and the censorship would hide lots of non-infringing comments and fair-use content, because better-safe-than-sorry), or user-submitted content would just be shut off all together. The latter is cheaper. Eventually, the Internet will become "consumption-only".

    January 18, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • government cheese

      Exactly. 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 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • CBuckley

      What I have been doing is asking a simple question.. Under the Provisions of SOPA, is the current page violating the law?

      That depends on the term "enabling".

      The fact of the matter is that the term is nebulous and could be construed in any number of ways. Wikipedia, for instance, could easily be found to be enabling piracy by having pages describing decryption schemes or mentioning some specific product. (ie, wikipedia could have a link for DVD43, or an article about it. Either would actually violate SOPA as they can be classified as enabling).

      In a wide case, even this thread and initial post.. Suppose Wikipedia was blacked out under SOPA as mentioned in the previous paragraph. Now, go back to the original article and see that part about how to get around the blackout? Guess what.. this article has also violated SOPA. (Granted, this would likely never have been enforced.. Most likely because the original article would have been run by the legal department, who would have deleted that section of the article).

      Herein lies the problem with the law. There is a problem with piracy. But, the law is written is such a broad scope that it really does not address the actual problem. The actual wording can be used for such a large number of variations as to be meaningless in its original sense of fighting piracy, but applicable in so very many ways to selectively shut down knowledge and information that is deemed inappropriate by a for-profit company. (Just like DMCA notices have been used to silence criticisms). There are effectively no checks-and-balances in the SOPA/PIPA. They do not go through law enforcement or judicial reviews.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sean

      @Government cheese Why did you have to put politics in you're agreement. This isn't about hackers or anarcists.. and anyways hackers are AGAINST SOPA.... *sighs*.. *bangs head off of desk*

      January 18, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • government cheese

      Sean- With this bill in place, political pundents can control media just like the newspapers through sabotage. Being that politicians wrote the bill, it is relevant. A political hacker can bring down an opposing media outlet simply by posting something deemed illegal. The site would be held responsible. The internet would turn into how newspapers deliver the news through selective editing, opinion-as-fact reporting, and false claims. What ever side you are with, don't you think the argument of issues should not be overshadowed with one sided opinions?

      January 18, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • government cheese

      Sean- Politics is only one example. However, you can relate it to any facet of life. It doesn't matter if you side with big or small government, pro war or anti war, big business or small business. The people with the power would be in politics and the DOJ. Whoever is in power, at the time, would wield influence over the only true form of media left in the country. Imagine what a world like that would be like.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Cameron

    If it was not meant to be viewed and used by the world, why post it online to begin with? Search engines like google and wikipedia are important to connect with the rest of the world. This has happened for years and people are just now getting mad? If it were me, say I posted pictures and someone used them, I would just be happy that people enjoy my efforts to show them what I did and to think its even worth using to begin with. If at all, They should be happy their work was found interesting.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  15. magnus

    this is about rich people that are mad that they make only 25 million a year on royalites rather than 35 million. Dont be fooled, Congress is nothing but a skid mark on a rich person's underwear and they will do anything to make sure the rich can afford a second golden toilet.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • nerfus


      January 18, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      Wouldn't you complain? If someone is losing $10 million a year in royalties, that is theft, whether the victim makes $0, $25 million, or $250 million.

      January 18, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
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