The Encyclopedia Strikes Back

Wikipedia has taken its english-language page offline in a protest against a proposed anti-piracy law being debated by the United States’ Congress.

It is opposed to the Stop Online Piracy (Sopa) and Protect Intellectual Property (Pipa) Acts which are designed to block access to websites hosting unauthorised copyrighted material.

The encyclopedia giant has been joined by Reddit and Google, in the largest protest of its kind by some of the biggest players in the internet industry.

Wikipedia’s homepage was blacked out and features this message: “For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopaedia in human history. Right now, the US Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia.”

Google has blacked out its logo, and links to a petition against SOPA.

If passed the law would give content owners and the government the power to seek court orders forcing search engines to block content associated with ‘piracy’.

However critics claim that the bills are so vague, and broad, that they present a real danger to freedom of the internet. While the US criticises China on a regular basis for its extensive internet censorship, it is currently debating laws which would remove any foreign websites infringing US copyright law.

Predictably, the bills have their supporters. Supporters like Rupert Murdoch and his fellow media barons with their legions of lobbyists.

Other sites, including Twitter, refused to join the protest. Twitter boss Dick Costolo tweeted “Closing a global business in reaction to single-issue national politics is foolish.”

Blunt, but perhaps more honest than Google’s hypocrisy – the search engine involved in today’s ‘blackout’ has been criticised for co-operating with the Chinese government’s efforts to censor online search results.

This just about sums up the protest. Certainly the SOPA and PIPA laws are yet another infringement on the rights to freedom of speech, but equally they do no more than extend the already existing copyright laws to the online realm.

Information is always by someone, for someone. The monopoly control of the majority of the worlds’ information outlets is one of the single most important factors in shaping our ideas about the world we live in.

This isn’t a clear-cut case of new, pro-freedom businesses against the old establishment. The case of Google, and Twitter’s ‘business as usual’ demonstrates that they are businesses like any other. As such we must not see them as reliable allies in the struggle to extend freedom of speech and information.

We should oppose any further power for these interests in the physical or online information industries. But equally we should not fall into the trap of uncritically supporting those for whom economic convenience means they temporarily find themselves defending free access to information.

We support today’s protest against the SOPA and PIPA bills, but they are not democratic. We would not support shipyards closing if governments raised the minimum wage, so we must stay vigilant and remember that companies like Google have a huge influence over our lives, with virtually zero accountability to the millions who rely on it.

 

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