Three of the Internet's most popular destinations--Google, Wikipedia, and Craigslist--launched an audacious experiment in political activism this evening by urging their users to protest a pair of Hollywood-backed copyright laws.
Wikipedia's English-language pages went completely black at 9 p.m. PT, with a splash page saying "the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet." The online encyclopedia's blackout, intended to precede next week's Senate floor vote on the legislation, is scheduled to last 24 hours.
Craigslist and Google have taken a more modest approach. Unlike Wikipedia, the sites will remain online during Wednesday's virtual protest, but the home pages now feature exhortations to contact members of Congress and urge them to vote against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Senate version called Protect IP. Craiglist's snarky note: "Corporate paymasters, KEEP THOSE CLAMMY HANDS OFF THE INTERNET!" (See CNET's FAQ on the topic.)
It's a novel experiment in grassroots-outreach-by-the-millions that could, if successful, derail SOPA and Protect IP, which have come under increasing criticism since last fall. Their authors -- Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) -- responded in the last week by offering some changes. But Smith said in a statement today that, one way or another, a House committee vote will be held in February.
CNET predicted the protest in a December 29 article that said opponents of the bills may "simultaneously turn" their home pages "black with anti-censorship warnings that ask users to contact politicians about a vote in the U.S. Congress."
This is "classic Hollywood trying to do heavy handed legislation to protect its business interests," Casey Rae-Hunter, deputy director of the Future of Music Coalition, told reporters this morning.
Among the other Web sites that, in one way or another, have joined the blackout: Metafilter, the Consumer Electronics Association, BoingBoing, OpenDNS, WordPress, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and what is almost certainly the Internet's most popular dinosaur comic strip. Some physical protests are also planned tomorrow.
Because Web companies are typically reluctant to involve their users in political spats, nothing exactly like today's protest has ever been tried before, and it's difficult to predict how it will affect Congress' willingness to proceed. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indicated on Sunday that he expected the floor vote on Protect IP to happen as scheduled.
But Google.com is the most popular Web site in the world, according to Alexa, with about half of global Internet users visiting it per day -- meaning that if only a small percent sign the company's petition against SOPA and Protect IP, the total number of voters lodging protests could be in the hundreds of thousands or even millions. (Google pointedly refrained from asking its users to call the U.S. Capitol's switchboard at (202) 224-3121, which likely would have overwhelmed the system within minutes.)
In a blog post late Tuesday night, Google's chief legal officer, David Drummond, predicted that Protect IP and SOPA "will censor the Web," "risk our industry's track record of innovation and job creation," and ultimately be unsuccessful in curbing piracy.
And then Wednesday morning, Google's home page featured a big, black block over the colorful "Google" logo that dominates the page, and a stark message under the search window urged: "Tell Congress: Please don't censor the web!" Both the blacked-out logo and the "Tell Congress" line linked out to a page entitled "End Piracy, Not Liberty" with an option for users to sign a petition to Congress.
SOPA, of course, represents the latest effort from the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and their allies to counter what they view as rampant piracy on the Internet, especially offshore Web sites. It would allow the Justice Department to obtain an order to be served on search engines, Internet service providers, and other companies, forcing them to make a suspected piratical Web site effectively vanish. It's opposed (PDF) by many Internet companies, users, and civil liberties groups.
Some Internet companies including Facebook, Twitter, eBay, and Yahoo have expressed concerns about the bill but have not said they would join the blackout. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo wrote that "closing a global business in reaction to single-issue national politics is foolish."
In one early sign that the blackouts and protests are having an effect, the MPAA today characterized them as "stunts." The group's chairman, Chris Dodd, took a thinly veiled swipe at Wikipedia by denouncing the protests as "an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on [the sites] for information and [who] use their services." News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter to offer similar thoughts.
Tomorrow's protest was originally designed to coincide with a hearing that SOPA foe Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) had scheduled on the measure's technical aspects, especially the portions relating to Domain Name System, or DNS, blocking. Issa said over the weekend that the Republican leadership had promised him that a floor vote would not happen "unless there is consensus on the bill," a rather implausible scenario. As a result, Issa postponed the hearing.
"There's a lot of sort of technologically ignorant language in" SOPA and Protect IP, said Erik Martin, general manager of Reddit, which has become a focal point of anti-SOPA activism and can probably claim credit for convincing GoDaddy to flip-flop on the legislation. Both bills, he said, were "done without a lot of thought about the impact and the execution and without a lot of knowledge technically about how the Internet operates."
Mozilla will join the protest at 5 a.m. PT (8 a.m. ET) tomorrow in what it's calling a "virtual strike" against SOPA and Protect IP. It will black out the default start page for Firefox users and ask them to take action.
"SOPA makes all of us potential criminals if we don't become the enforcement arm of a new government regulatory and policing structure," Mozilla chairwoman Mitchell Baker wrote in a blog post today.
The protest had a few hiccups. For the first 20 minutes or so, Google's initial sign-this-petition Web page delivered this message: "Error: Server Error / The server encountered an error and could not complete your request."
Last updated January 18 at 6:01 a.m. PT