On Wed., Jan. 18, 10,000 various websites “blacked out” for upwards of 12 hours in order to raise awareness of two bills currently being considered by Congress—SOPA and PIPA. Big time tech names have touted these bills as being lethal to the current Internet we know and love. Wikipedia, Firefox, Google, Wired Magazine, Reddit—even Mark Zuckerberg—have attempted to bring these bills to the forefront of public attention in whatever manner they can, and request that people not sit idly by. Reddit put up a black-schemed home page, urging users to sign an online petition or to call their local lawmaker. The explanation on the Reddit front page read that the two bills “restrict innovation and threaten the existence of websites with user-submitted content.” Wikipedia blocked access to entire articles, creating a living hell for any unknowing students who were writing last minute papers at two in the morning Tuesday night (only later did I realize that you could hit “Stop” as the page was loading before the article was blacked out). It’s necessary to note that Wikipedia only blacked out their “English” site; it’s further interesting to note that this move was made only after 1,500 Wikipedia contributors agreed to do it, asking the Wikimedia Foundation for the direct blackout implementation. Google made a more subtle move by replacing their iconic logo with a black bar Doodle.
By the time many people had caught on to what was happening, Wikipedia wouldn’t allow them to read up on SOPA. Many turned to Twitter more feverishly than ever before. Reddit creator Alexis Ohanian jokingly tweeted that Wednesday will be remembered as “Productivity Day.”
On that note, what did I ever do before Reddit? Sleep? I don’t think so. Work out at the CRC? Nah, my body is naturally like this. Pay attention in class? Hardly.
Whether you actively pursue every avenue you can protesting SOPA, or are glued to old West Wing episodes on YouTube, there is a plain fact of which you should be aware: Washington noticed the blackout. Read that again—let the underlying tones of instant gratification soak in. One day of blackouts and alarmist statements from some of the biggest brass in Silicon Valley did what the non-profit “Fight For The Future” and both the New York and Los Angeles Times editorial boards have been trying to do for weeks. Even Senator Marco Rubio, one of the co-sponsors of PIPA made a post-blackout about-face. Senator John Cornyn urged Congress to slow down on such “sweeping legislation,” taking the time to get the bill “right” rather than “fast and wrong.” Cornyn isn’t exactly an ignorable voice on Capitol Hill: He heads the Senate campaign committee—and more importantly, controls millions of dollars in re-election funds. Similarly, House Representatives Lee Terry and Ben Quayle pulled their support from SOPA.
To momentarily play a sort of devil’s advocate, I must admit it is easy to see why the film, video game and music industries would want to shift from in-house technical and regulatory measures to rallying for more government support. At Tech, everyone has had to take at least one programming class. Now imagine having to code epic adventure RPG’s like Skyrim. It’s easy to see why game developers would want a bit of compensation. The same goes for filmmakers. Imagine if Christopher Nolan’s box-office smash The Dark Knight didn’t make a single dime. It would arguably have changed the course of film history itself.
I say all of this to demonstrate the necessity of rewarding quality works of multimedia. The problem lies in how the government has approached the subject all along. SOPA and PIPA should contain razor-sharp and irrefutable points, not vague and sweeping generalities that could alter free speech as we now know it.
Political underpinnings aside, the fact remains that this effort has actually succeeded to some extent, slowing hasty legislation that unquestionably has the power to change the landscape of the Internet. Every Internet user of today was just done a huge service. Realistically, the worst is not over yet. Congress has yet to vote on these bills—but they have paused to reconsider. As young academics at a prestigious technological institute, we have the stage. Now is the time to make the most of that pause.