'Wikipedia Blackout,' SOPA and PIPA Explained

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SOPA. PIPA. "Internet Censorship." Wikipedia's one-day blackout. The news is all over the Web, but what do the terms mean?

Here is a quick review of the debate as it comes to a head this week:

The Bills in Congress:

PIPA is a Senate bill originally called the Protect IP Act. "IP" is short, in this case, for Intellectual Property, such as movies, music or writing that, in the digital age, can easily be copied and transmitted online without payment to their creators.

SOPA - the Stop Online Piracy Act - is a similar bill in the House.

The idea of both, as described by their sponsors, was to stop the illegal copying of movies or music, something that Hollywood studios, music publishers and many others believe is threatening their businesses. Supporters range from the Country Music Association to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, from the Motion Picture Association of America to the AFL-CIO.

But not everyone agrees. These bills pitted Hollywood against the goals of many in Silicon Valley.

The Objections

Internet entities such as Wikipedia, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and Tumblr said the two bills would force them to be online police and hold them responsible if users of their sites link to pirated content.

The companies said the bills could require your Internet provider to block websites that are involved in digital file sharing. And search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing could be stopped from linking to them - antithetical, they argue, to the ideal of an open Internet.

"While I support their goal of reducing copyright infringement (which I don't believe these acts would accomplish), I am shocked that our lawmakers would contemplate such measures that would put us on a par with the most oppressive nations in the world," said Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of Google, in a December post on Google+.

The White House weighed in on Jan. 14. In a post on the White House website, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and two colleagues wrote, "While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet."

The Protest Movement

Several major websites, including Wikipedia, Reddit and TwitPic, said they would " go dark" on Wednesday to show their opposition to the two bills in Congress. (A list of participants is at SOPAStrike.com.)

If you visit one of the protesting sites Wednesday, you may get an error message, but they're more likely to post messages urging you to join them in opposition to SOPA and PIPA.

Others, such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, have not said they would join. Twitter's CEO, Dick Costolo, made a widely-cited tweet on Monday: "Closing a global business in reaction to single-issue national politics is foolish."

Google today said it would remain online, but show its opposition to the bills with a link Wednesday on its home page in the U.S. "Like many businesses, entrepreneurs and web users, we oppose these bills because there are smart, targeted ways to shut down foreign rogue websites without asking American companies to censor the Internet," said a Google spokesperson.

Congressional Response

SOPA, the House bill, is on hold for now, and a hearing to discuss how it would work technically has been delayed.

In the Senate, a vote on PIPA is still scheduled for Jan. 24, but it's a procedural matter (a Senate staffer, asking not to be named, said it's "on whether to debate debating the bill"). Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who was one of the original sponsors, has said he would like to amend the bill.

"I will … propose that the positive and negative effects of this provision be studied before implemented, so that we can focus on the other important provisions in this bill," Leahy said, "which are essential to protecting American intellectual property online, and the American jobs that are tied to intellectual property."

Click Here for More Coverage: The Internet Protests

Meantime, the protests are still on. "#PIPA is a live threat. But #sopa is far from dead - just dormant as they revise it," tweeted Jimmy Wales, the head of Wikipedia. In another message he said, "Call your Senators. Call your Representatives. Know your stuff and explain your opposition."