As websites go black, Washington lawmakers react

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 18, 2012 

WASHINGTON — In the vast universe of the Internet, some planets went temporarily dark Wednesday to protest government attempts to intrude on what's long been their anything-goes frontier. And there's evidence that it made an impact in Washington.

Howls erupted from the Twitter-verse when the English version of Wikipedia, the free, collaborative Web encyclopedia and homework crutch of students everywhere, shut down. One distraught tweet said:

"Why is Wikipedia down on the day that I have a 7 hour take away exam???? Livid."

To counter the widespread panic, libraries — remember them? — stepped into the breach. An encouraging tweet from a librarian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said: "You can still research today during blackouts. Libs are open & lots of online resources for you. Need help?"

Google and Facebook, the two most trafficked sites on the Internet, were still up, although Google slapped a big black bar across its well-known colorful trademark to show its solidarity with the protest against pending anti-piracy legislation.

"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," the company said in a statement.

Blessedly, silly cat photos and stupid videos — such as a nervous dog balancing on a chain — were still accessible.

The 24-hour blackout was over the right of business — in this case, Hollywood and the publishing and recording industries — to make a profit on its work, versus maintaining free and open access to the Internet.

Two bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House of Representatives and the Protect Intellectual Property Act in the Senate, would try to stop illegal downloading and sharing of copyright material. Opponents claim they'd stifle innovation, limit service and impel companies to monitor their users. A third bill, the Senate's Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act, aims for a middle ground.

"Protecting foreign criminals from liability rather than protecting American copyright holders and intellectual property developers is irresponsible, will cost American jobs and is just wrong," Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a sponsor of one of the piracy bills, said in a statement.

How many websites joined Wednesday's protest was unclear. One estimate said 10,000, but that could have been wishful thinking.

Reddit, the popular social news site, went dark. So did MoveOn.org, WordPress and Mozilla, which operates the web browser Firefox. Like Wikipedia, they directed viewers to information about the pending legislation, as did some sites that remained active, such as Craigslist.

"The Internet has injected itself into the very fabric of society," said Zac Cohn, 23, who works with an Internet startup company in Seattle and who passed out fliers Wednesday at a protest there. "It feels like you're fighting the future if you're trying to regulate the Internet like this."

As opposed to an earlier generation raised on "I want my MTV," one nurtured on the Web and that thinks nothing of watching a three-hour movie on a screen smaller than a license plate, while texting and emailing, doesn't want anyone messing around with its Internet.

"A day without Wikipedia or any other blocked website means being denied access, period," said Corey Williams, the associate director for government relations at the American Library Association, which opposes the anti-piracy bills.

McClatchy Co. supports efforts to protect content. "We should be able to create our content and get all the value we can without people just being able to lift it and make a business out of work which we have paid for," said Christian A. Hendricks, the company's vice president for interactive media.

As the day wore on, the blackout seemed to be having an effect.

Several lawmakers, including Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Roy Blunt of Missouri, and Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, withdrew their earlier endorsements of the piracy bills and called for more discussion.

It was a far cry from several years ago, when then-Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, once described the Internet as a "series of tubes." The political lines were shifting, and it had nothing to do with party or the looming presidential rumble.

The Motion Picture Association of America called the blackout a "gimmick" and said "business interests are resorting to stunts to punish their users or turn them into corporate pawns."

But suddenly Hollywood, a powerful player in Washington, had some competition.

Yochai Benkler, a co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, said the blackout showed not only that tech companies had become influential but also that they now recognized that they had to work with Washington instead of around it.

He said the day also showed that the tech community and everyone who relied on it could form a potentially daunting alliance.

"Today was a very strong public demonstration to suggest that what historically was seen as a technical system of rules that only influences the content industry has become something more," he said. "You've got millions of citizens who care enough to act. That's not trivial."

(Rachel Roubein, Emily Seagrave Kennedy and Tish Wells contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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