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

According to the online community that has formed in opposition to the legislation, it amounts to online censorship. 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 everyone?

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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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.