The Internet went dark on Jan. 18 in protest of two bills in Congress: SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act). These bills, if passed, would take a heavy toll on piracy; but along with attacking piracy, they would have several unintended consequences that would affect the entire Internet and the content on it.

PIPA and SOPA are the latest attempt to stem the rampant excessive nature of piracy, which has become increasingly prevalent in the past decade. The bills would limit the access to websites found to be distributing copyrighted material. This would be achieved through blocking the domain name service of websites preventing users from being able to directly access websites through web URLs. The way DNS blocking would work is when a user enters a URL they are entering a unique name to a website. These unique names allow users to reach their intended destination instead of some other website. The blocking system would be more like a filter that refuses to allow users to access their intended websites. This method would be used to block “rogue foreign sites,” which the US government has no control over.

SOPA PIPA. Photos from Creative Commons.

This system of website blocking is very similar to the censorship found in other nations throughout the world. This censorship and the parallels it draws to such nations as China are just some of the reasons that outcry began to form around these bills as they exited committees in the House and the Senate.

Other criticisms of PIPA and SOPA were that the bills were too “draconian” in their attempts to fight piracy. Websites that contained user-generated content could be blocked, even if the content undeliberately contained copyrighted material. These bills would potentially threaten websites such as Google and Twitter. These bills could bring an end to fair use on the Internet, making it difficult to determine the difference between fair use and copyright infringement.

Public attention grew steadily as the bills made their way through committee, as they prepared to exit committee, and as they reached the floor public opinion surged against the bills. The increase in public outrage started protests that encouraged some of the major websites on the Internet to go “black” for a day to show the impact that these bills would have. A large number of personal blogs went dark for the day, but a couple of Internet powerhouses also went dark in their own ways. Google changed their banner for the day, putting a censorship bar across it and linked users to a petition. The final tally for the number of people who had signed the petition lobbied by Google reached 4.5 million people. The English version of Wikipedia went dark for the entire day at the request of their editors and the public. While shut down, their mobile content was still available to users.

Wikipedia's black out. Photos courtesy of Creative Commons.

Protestors called the blackout and petition-signing the largest mass organized online protest in history. As a result of the public outcry, voting on both bills was suspended. Along with the bills being suspended, one of the most impressive things is how quickly websites and users organized in protest of these two bills. This is one of the first times such large scale protest was carried about online. Internet piracy is a major issue that needs to be addressed but the Internet and its users made it clear that the tacts of SOPA and PIPA were not ones they would tolerate.