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. Isa

    I am an artist, I create content to sell at places like IMVU and Second Life, I also create user content for 3D applications like Poser. I have had my content pirated. I agree that there should be a way to stop piracy, but SOPA and PIPA are not it. These need to be stopped now, and we have to watch out for anything else they will try to pass under a different name. This is only the beginning. Politicians need to be reminded who put them there. Companies might pay for their campaign, but we are the voters and there are more of us. Election is around the corner.

    January 18, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jeremy Hansen

    “Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power”
    -Benito Mussolini, the inventor of Fascism.


    January 18, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Lee

    I agree with stopping piracy. None of us want our livelihoods stolen from us. But I will never back government legislation that censors anything. It's not the governments place. Once it becomes the governments role, then we are no longer free and we are just like the communist, totalitarian regimes we've fought against. And since the government just seems to screw up everything they control, and some things they don't, lets not give them even more control and more things to screw up. The media industry needs to use their brains not their wallets to protect their product. This could create an entire new industry, protection against piracy. More jobs created right there.

    January 18, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • OrangeW3dge

      Government censorship? Already happens, and always had, but we are trying to stop it and keep it that way. But every generation they come up with these kids that want to use the Government for their own purposes. If you want freedom, you have to work for it. Liberty is not just a law, it is a life.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • SChris

      I agree with you that piracy is wrong on a moral level, however the things that are being pirated are most movies and music. These people make millions of dollars for their creation. I make $12/hr, I'm not gonna pay for my movies and music so somebody that is making millions can make a couple more million. I agree that its morally wrong, but we're not taking away their livelyhood by any means. I won't be losing sleep if these people can't buy their second house in the bahamas cause I downloaded their stuff illegally.

      January 18, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Report abuse |
  4. WhoKnewIt

    Can you imagine what it would be like if this passed? Another "agency" formed in the government to be manned/run by people who haven't got a clue, being in the cross hairs of lobbyist's, under-funded, under manned and totally FUBR! Yeah, that's just what we need.....TO MUCH government control........

    January 18, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Tom

    It's amazing that the RICH Senate and Congress can't balance the countrys budget, but they can waste time on bills that will ruin more of this country!! Everybody in office more than 2-4 years need to be ousted! If you and i had the "insider trading" information they have, more Americans would possibly be rich too.

    January 18, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
  6. nikki

    We dont need SOPA! the only reason they are doing it is because they want to control us. we need FREEDOM not this stupid crap. this country is supposed to be free not controlled by the government!

    January 18, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
  7. SayNoToSOPAandPIPA

    SOPA and PIPA IMHO have NOTHING to do with piracy. The various industries are just being used as fronts to protect against another wikileaks or similar fiasco. Obviously, the industries affected (music, motion picture, etc.) fully support this bill because it provides some protection to them. Politician's support using these industries because they can hide the bill's true intended purpose, another step towards communist censorship. Any politician who votes in favor of this bill has lost my vote!

    January 18, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Erin Van Schaack

    This sounds like great news for boookstores and libraries. For all those students who couldn't look things up today on the internet. Let me introduce you to a thing called a public or school library. There are these things called books, encyclopedias, periodicals and reference books inside these wonderful buildings. You go to the lovely and helpful employees there called librarians. They can help you find just the right book that you can get the information you need. Welcome to how those of us that went to college in the past got our information. Good luck and good reading!

    January 18, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • /sigh

      Not a single library has as much information available as the internet, in fact most schools and libraries have books that are so outdated that non of them could ever be seen as a viable source.
      Of course you would know that if you ever used teh internet as intended instead of just watching youtube

      January 18, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Really?

      I often wondered if older people are just bitter that they had to "do it the hard way", and the younger generations get off easier. Then, since your generation is in control, you decide that the hard way is better and so you stand in the way of progress. Then you die, and the next generation replaces you, and is bitter. The merry-go-round never ends.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • s

      Do not assume that your generation's methods are the best methods. The internet contains relevant information that is up to date, and it's only getting better. Your argument is like comparing reading a physical newspaper to reading it on a tablet or online. Just look at the trends, journalists at LA times are being laid off because of the huge shift from paper-news to online-news. This is "the future", whether you like it or not.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • MrDanger

      Ahh yes the library. The outdated useless places all over the country that use our tax dollars to babysit children after school. The overbloated non-green buildings that keep thier lights on all night despite the CO2 they create. Ahh the library.

      January 18, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • SChris

      Let me introduce you to the telegraph. It's what people used before the phone was invented. Let me also introduce you to a horse and buggy. That's what people used before cars. Why the hell would people want to use something outdated if technology has provided us with something far superior. If your afraid of change and technology go join an Amish community. Personally, I got through college by using the internet to research papers and look up information so I didn't spend hours looking through books. I also used calculators so I didn't have to do complex math which also saved me time. I suggest you use any resources that make your life easier and more efficient and stop being afraid of change

      January 18, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Fairfax

    If you want to view a blacked out wiki page – load the page then quickly press print-screen to copy the screen before it's blacked out and then paste it into paint or Word to read it. Wikipedia – how does it feel?

    January 18, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Uhh?

      Well since Wikipedia is an open source encyclopedia, I really doubt the give 1 turd about that. How about you take your repressive BS back to whatever cave you crawled out of, probably one in China or Syria.

      January 18, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • s

      all you have to do is mash the esc button on the main wiki page before it automatically changes to the "blacked out page"

      January 18, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Melissa

    This insane attack against the internet needs to stop. The internet needs to remain a place of freedom.

    January 18, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
  11. me

    The government should NOT become the copyright police, judge or jury. Free enterprise would suggest you protect your own belongings. Just a cost of doing business, my friends. Use your noggins to protect what you need, it's called being an entreprenuer. You need to pay for your own security...not the taxpayers of the U.S. of A.

    January 18, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
  12. john

    If you go to wikipedia and press the stop button before the whole page is loaded then you cant still use wiki. I figured that out right when the blackout happened. HA these students are pretty dumb

    January 18, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • /sigh

      wow you figured out how basic internet operations work, as they intened it to do... moron...

      January 18, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
  13. /sigh

    Gotta love how only the music and hollywood industries are the ones supporting this.
    They claim they are losing money but in fact they are one of the largest industries in the world, they just want to make sure they make as much money as possible, even if it means taking freedom from others.

    January 18, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  14. idecomp

    WOW! Google you took it all the way! NOT! You should have blocked all search results of one day as solidarity...

    January 18, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • BioHzrd

      If google went down, many people would just curl in a fetal position and cry

      January 18, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |
  15. CanHasDIY

    Lol, nothing like having some Philistine incapable of expounding a cogent thought preach (or rather, considering the all caps, screech) at me about "education." Must've been looking in a mirror when you posted, eh comrade?

    January 18, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
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