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. Kdog2112

    Kids writing term papers by using Wikipedia? wow.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cameron

      More like a reference to support the making of the term papers. If a person can not even put forth the slightest effort, they will not pass to begin with. Have you not used the internet for research or for some kind of assignment? Everybody uses it and even we are right now.

      January 18, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      The differnce being that the kids need to use the references for their citations, rather than just saying "Wikipedia".
      My local HS doesn't allow Wikipedia as a source.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Spacetime

      Actually, the person whose tweet they posted was wanting to use Wiki to get info on a book they didn't read. It's too early in the semester for term papers.
      That "Really, college students?" thing got under my skin. For every student who blatantly plagerizes Wiki in research papers, there are a great deal more who use it as a tool to get started or to check facts that they are a bit hazy on. I've used Wiki to get an overview of the topic that I was writing about. It also provides links to its sourses, which is infinitely helpful in research.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Reynah

    We cannot allow our US Government to censor our internet. Censorship should never be allowed here in the USA, it is against our own Rights and Liberties fought for and granted to us over 200 years ago! Many of our ancestors came to America for these Freedoms, and now we and our children are facing the loss of them if these 2 bills are passed. Contact your Representative and Senator – let your voice be heard. Let them know that we will not allow them to take away our Rights.

    January 18, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Kdog2112

    Kids using wikipedia for term papers? Really? Guess they shouldn't wait till the last minute..

    January 18, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cameron

      Well thats their problem waiting to the last minute. BigMan has a very good point but that right will never be took away(unles you use them illegaly). We have the right to FREEDOM of the press, FREEDOM of speech, FREEDOM of religion and many other rights. Censoring the web practically takes the peoples rights to know what is happening in the world we live in.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
  4. BigMan

    Can anyone actually post the section of one or both of these bills that claims US sites will be censored or shut down. From what I've heard, these bills only affect overseas sites whose primary function is pirated material. Trying to find every little infraction that US websites have would be too daunting a task.

    Also, how exactly is this affecting Wikipedia? Are people pirating songs through Wikipedia? Wikipedia already has a policy of referencing all entries. Are they afraid that someone might not reference something and the government will shut them down as a result? Get real. Talk about conspiracy theories... Some of you guys out there need to take breath....a very deep breath and relax. Start worrying about something else...like why you have the right to bear arms, as long as they're not nuclear arms. What's up with that?

    January 18, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave P

      If a site links to a site that is involved with piracy, it can face an accusation under these laws. Wikipedia has an article about The Pirate Bay which includes a link to that site. The Pirate Bay "facilitates" downloading pirated content. Therefore, Wikipedia can be considered a "facilitator" because people might find out about Pirate Bay from Wikipedia. Even if they remove the link, they're still informing people about Pirate Bay's existence.

      The Wikipedia admins didn't put that link there (neither did its owner), rather it was added by a user. What makes Wikipedia such a powerful tool is also what would make it extremely vulnerable to these new laws.

      Of course, it seems far-fetched that the government would want to shut down Wikipedia. In fact, the government wouldn't do so of its own volition. Some corporation would have to file a complaint about Wikipedia under the provisions these laws set forth. But what motivation would a large corporation have to see Wikipedia go away? I'll give you a hint: when was the last time you bought a shelf full of encyclopedias?

      January 18, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • government cheese

      Section 201 (a) (1) (C)- "Any person"

      January 18, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sanity

      BigMan, This is what happens when you read a one line news heading on a pro-legislation news channel and assume you know everything about the bill. There is much more to this bill than 'stopping piracy'. People who are against it have legitimate fears. Learn more before you make an opinion.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
  5. spud

    "You probably woke up this morning to realize the Internet is totally screwy"......I did just that and thought "that da mned George Bush is up to no good again!!!!"....

    January 18, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Dark POet

    Listen here are the facts..

    You pay Time Life $100s of dollars for music you get from Pandora, Grooveshark, and YouTube for free. This will shut down things like You Tube due to copy right laws and also any free internet raido IE Pandora.

    Now here is the other thing and the flip side of the coin,
    People have been using Pirating siites Mini-Nova, Pirate Bay, torrent-finder to download items online and keep them for personal use or SOME FEW people have been using them to sell on EBAY for "Lower" price.

    Now I say lets solve all of this and just go after the people who SELL Pirated ITEMS or Profit of Piracy. That way the person who just downloads music from online places like You Tube ect will not be punished for "Taking Money" from the Artist/Developer/Producer but the people peddieling this items on the street or Ebay will have to pay the fines and loose their profits.

    Its actually the only solution that will solve both sides of the argument. If someone is going to profit off it OTHER THEN the people who should then go after those people!

    January 18, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Billy

    Where was Dodd when the bankers were steeling the money out of those same peoples pocket? Hypocrite

    January 18, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  8. caz

    Stealing is wrong I can go on websites that sell stolen copyright that also destroys media jobs so please let the bill pass piracy destroys media jobs if it doesent pass will by media jobs then by movie theaters there go more jobs

    January 18, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave P

      Internet experts are in universal agreement that SOPA/PIPA will not stop online piracy, or even dent it much. Sure, movie theaters suffer from pirated content, I'll grant that. But these bills won't help (because they don't understand how the internet functions), so projectionists and ushers will continue to suffer. But these bills will have a harsh side-effect: any web site that allows user-submitted content will have to diligently self-censor or face the government unplugging it. That actually WILL help movie theaters. Think about it this way: Back when TV became available, attendance at movie theaters fell drastically (many theater jobs lost). If somehow TV could have been killed (by legal threats to the TV stations), theaters would have gotten their patrons back. Now extend that to modern user-submitted internet content, such as videos of kittens doing adorable things (not copyrighted, but also free; Viacom gets no royalties from it). If I can't watch hours-upon-hours of those user-submitted videos anymore (because hosting them is too risky), then I'll be bored and might go to the theater more often.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  9. banasy©


    January 18, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
  10. BrofromtheO

    I started to look up Intellectual Property on the web to get a better understanding of it. But I can't. Wikipedia is down. THANKS A LOT BIN LADEN!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • us1776

      You think bin-Laden runs Wikipedia?

      bin-Laden is dead BTW. Check Wikipedia – tomorrow.


      January 18, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul NY

      someone doesnt understand sarcasm

      January 18, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Guest

    To me,this bill is akin to having to spend way way too much money on tv shows and music again,Instead of just watching streaming things online.
    I will not pay for tv again.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  12. jimmy

    Sounds to me like we have too many folks in DC sitting around thinking up new laws – just like the EPA!

    January 18, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      EPA sits around thinking "you can't do stuff that will overall kill people by making the planet unliveable", SOPA was drafted because Hollywood threw 98 million dollars lobbying congress to try to pass a bill to have near unchecked power over the internet.

      They're not even in the same league.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Pedro

    Did anyone supporting this nonsense actually read SOPA? You can do jail time for performing "Happy birthday" (recording your kids birthday party), uploading it to youtube and exceeding a magical threshold where enough people view the video to incur more than 5k in "damages". Copyright was never a blank check of infinite exclusivity to your work. There is a concept of fair use like it or not.

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

      wait, someone really has the copyrights to happy birthday?

      January 18, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      Yes, happy birthday is copyrighted, so is the Martin Luther King "I have a Dream" speech, you cannot actually watch that for free.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Mrs. M

    All I've noticed is articles like this one, trying to make a mountain out of a mole-hill.

    January 18, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Richard

      What planet do you live on?

      January 18, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • everchangingtruth

      Mrs M, please read go read a book and stop living in ignorance. Thank you! P.S. Not a CNN website article that most the time is misinformation.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • sumday

      listen we live in a new age, one filled with technology only dreamed about 60yrs ago. These copy right laws have/are becoming out dated, and have for the most part held humans/humanity back solely so someone can make a profit- I thought of something first so pay me for life- You can't use your own equipment, your own time, your own money to do something I've done pay me. The truth is far more than SOPA or PIPA we really need to abolish the intellectual property right laws. Intellectual property laws do more to hold humans back for the sole purpose of profit than they do to benefit society.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pipy

      You know that saying you just used might be copyrighted... I'm just sayin.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  15. CrissyMLee

    Seriously, this article turns into how to break through the Wiki blackout... wait... isn't the bill partially about how to stop piracy and the backdoor to break through the laws and do it anyways? SHAME ON YOU CNN for doing exactly what your parent company TIME WARNER is trying to stop just on a different playing field... is this definitely a bias article? Umm.. yes. However at least you included the tidbit about how these laws will make America like China... Why not guys? Don't you all want to someday be told how many children you can have, live in complete and total poverty (unless you are one of the select few), work in labor mills for pennies a day, unable to protest your government or even see whats happening in the outside world because every site is blocked. Where does checks and balances go because there is no way to know why they shut down certain sites... they just will... possibly because they are getting a bad media wrap and better to shut it down and pretend there was some piracy link than to let us see it and revolt... because its not very American to revolt... aside from the fact that's why we are Americans and not part of England right now... its ok... LETS DO IT! LETS BECOME THE NEXT CHINA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Navi555

      You would be interested to know that Warner Bros. (from where TimeWarner gets the Warner name) got their start dodging the Edison Trust by moving to Hollywood. In fact, the majority of the Major 6 were in fact pirates themselves.

      January 18, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
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