Most people probably haven't paid much attention to the huge corporations waging war in Washington, D.C., over legislation designed to crack down on theft of movies, music and other content from the Internet. But the conflict will hit consumers in the face Wednesday, when Wikipedia and a growing number of other websites intend to go dark to protest the proposed changes.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales announced Monday that the hugely popular online encyclopedia would shut down to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and related legislation, which opponents say could kill websites without due process.
Wikipedia joins Reddit, Boing Boing and dozens of lesser-known sites in what some have dubbed the SOPA Strike, an attempt to widen their complaints about proposals supported by the movie industry and other media companies.
"Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed, MLK on Wednesday, Wikipedia demands," Wales said via Twitter Monday, the Martin Luther King holiday. He had earlier signaled the coming blackout by tweeting: "Student warning! Do your homework early. Wikipedia protesting bad law on Wednesday!#sopa."
The Motion Picture Assn. of America, a chief driver behind the legislation, accused the Internet companies of resorting to "gimmicks and distortion" and said that they were not interested in finding a real solution to the problem of piracy.
"Our perspective on this, from a larger perspective, is that it's part and parcel of a campaign to distract from the real issue here and to draw people away from trying to resolve what is a real problem, which is that foreigners continue to steal the hard work of Americans," said Michael O'Leary, the executive leading the MPAA's campaign for the bills.
The pending action by the protesting websites — which reportedly also included Mozilla, Wordpress and Twitpic — came after the Obama administration signaled over the weekend it would not support parts of the anti-piracy legislation.
"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,'' said a statement from three officials: Victoria Espinel, intellectual property enforcement coordinator; Aneesh Chopra, U.S. chief technology officer; and Howard Schmidt, cybersecurity coordinator for the national security staff.
Internet operators — from giants like Google and EBay to small operators — have opposed the legislation because they said it allows companies to move to block websites and even take away their user addresses if they are deemed to have misappropriated any content.
The Internet companies said the proposed legislation — SOPA in the House and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) in the Senate — allows operators no real due process before government actions can be taken against them. They said the result would be censorship and a strangling of the free flow of information that represents the soul of Web freedom.
Lobbyists for the Internet firms said they felt their concerns had not been heeded in early rounds of the legislation. The blackouts and an outpouring of protests from everyday Internet users could turn the tide.
"A lot of people feel that nobody has been listening and this is a way to get people to listen," said Maura Corbett, spokeswoman for Net Coalition, which represents Internet titans like Google, EBay and others. "This is more than a stunt. This is saying please listen to us."
O'Leary of the motion picture trade group rejected the idea that the concerns of Internet purveyors had not been heard. He noted that SOPA's sponsor in the House had just agreed that one of the most contentious provisions — which would have allowed wholesale blocking of an offending website's domain name — would be removed from the bill.
"That was their biggest objection and it has been removed," said O'Leary. "So now they've pivoted and started complaining about something else. We are interested in working with people who want to find a real solution, not just maintain the status quo, because with that, the criminals have the advantage and that is just not acceptable."
Senate leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on "Meet the Press" Sunday that he plans to bring the online piracy legislation to a vote next week.
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— James Rainey
Photo: Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, seen in 2011. Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth / Associated Press.