Think Tank

WTF Wikipedia? What SOPA, PIPA, and the Blackout Mean To You

What's the Big Idea?

Wikipedia’s call to “imagine you live in a world without free knowledge” may have been dramatic, but it was also effective: after 24 hours of living without the history of everything at your fingertips, you probably got the point. Journalists compared the shutdown of hundreds of websites yesterday to the loss of a digital limb. "This is what happens when you make the Internet mad," declared an editorial in the Washington Post. One student tweeted, “Wtf Wikipedia, how am I gonna do my homework?”

Clearly, we like our encyclopedias like we like our news: infinite, free, and constantly accessible. The message behind the Internet blackout was that two controversial pieces of anti-piracy legislation, SOPA and PIPA, could put an end to all that, by shifting the responsibility for policing online copyright violations from content creators to internet service providers. 

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The most contentious provision of SOPA mandates that "a service provider shall take technically feasible and reasonable measures designed to prevent access by its subscribers located within the United States to the foreign infringing site (or portion thereof) that is subject to the order." Copyright holders would be able to obtain a court order against websites accused of "enabling or facilitating" infractions.

This amounts to online censorship, according to the community - comprised of monoliths like Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia as well as startups and venture capitalists - that has formed in opposition to the legislation. But is the controversy really about free speech, or is it just another showdown between rich and powerful Hollywood, and even richer and more powerful Silicon Valley? How will SOPA and PIPA affect you and me? Big Think put the question to VC Brad Burnham, an outspoken critic of the legislation. 

"A lot of people have positioned this debate as just a battle between the tech industry and the content industry, and it’s an insiders’ game - it’s a bunch of rich guys playing around with each other," he said. "I don’t think that’s the case. What we’re talking about is the freedom to innovate. That’s a very profound and important thing... if you think about the problems that we’re trying to solve, the internet isn’t the problem. The internet is the solution." Established web companies like Google and Yahoo have the money to hire lawyers to make their case in court, says Burnham. It's web startups and the people who use them that will suffer.

What's the Significance?

Whenever we talk about regulation of the Internet, what we're really talking about is the regulation of intellectual property. On one hand, most of us would like to see the free and democratic spread of information. On the other hand, we'd also like to see artists paid fairly for their work, so that they can afford to go on making it. The question is, how can we show that we value creative output without limiting access to it? The fervor around SOPA/PIPA has revealed how far we are from definitively answering that question (with a few brilliant exceptions).

Even Wikipedia contributors are on the fence. Editor Robert Lawton told the AP that his main concern about the blackout was that it "puts the organization in the role of advocacy, and that's a slippery slope. Before we know it, we're blacked out because we want to save the whales." Founder Jimmy Wales believes that the site's mission of neutrality can be upheld, but "the community need not be, not when the encyclopedia is threatened."



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