If you were planning to get a head start on that research paper tomorrow, think again. I’m afraid I have some startling news: Wikipedia is going to shut down on Wednesday. …I know.
After you have recovered from the initial shock of that statement, you may ask why Wikipedia would do such a thing. The answer is that they are boycotting the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). SOPA is a bill that has been criticized by civil rights groups, Nancy Pelosi, Justin Bieber, Ron Paul, and numerous others. On January 14, President Obama announced that the White House would not support SOPA; subsequently, the vote regarding it was canceled. And tomorrow, in what could truly be the most noticed move of all, Wikipedia will be down, replaced instead by a page advising people to call Congress and complain about SOPA.
At this point, you are no doubt asking, “So? Who cares about an anti-piracy bill? What is all the commotion about? And don’t we want to prevent online piracy, while at the same time protecting intellectual property?” Absolutely. But SOPA isn’t the way to do it.
SOPA is a nightmare for supporters of free speech. It states that a website is guilty of facilitating theft (and therefore liable to face serious penalties) if it “enables or facilitates” potential infringement. This overbroad definition would seem to cover pretty much any website on the Internet. Certainly, Google could be included. SOPA would also allow copyright holders to direct financial institutions (such as Visa or Mastercard) to cut off access to a particular website simply through an allegation of infringement — or aiding infringement, under the vague definition. And the government would have the power to black-list websites.
Many websites (including Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Twitter) have pointed out that SOPA could also lead to censorship online, because it mandates that Internet intermediaries (such as Facebook) censor countless websites. SOPA could also result in the closure of numerous anonymous platforms for whistle-blowing, such as ones that expose human rights violations. Finally, SOPA’s regulations and vague definitions will certainly stifle creativity for online startups.
SOPA is a disgrace (as is PIPA), because it is based on the fallacy that piracy can be stopped if we call everything piracy. It assumes that, by limiting free speech, we can stop the theft of free speech. And it tries to curb piracy by creating harsher punishments for vaguer crimes. No inadvertent pirate should ever be made to walk the plank.
Internet piracy is real and dangerous. However, SOPA is even more dangerous. So tomorrow, go to Wikipedia, shed a tear that it is temporarily unavailable, and then follow its instructions — call Congress to tell them that SOPA is bad news.