Wikipedia Threatens Blackout to Protest Piracy Bill

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) – In a move that could prove disastrous for college students working on final papers, collaborative online encyclopedia Wikipedia is pondering the possibility of going dark.

The proposed shutdown has nothing to do with technical problems or money issues, and everything to do with the Stop Online Piracy Act, an anti-piracy bill that has raised the ire of many major technology companies. This past weekend, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales posted a discussion on his Wikipedia user page suggesting that the English-language version of Wikipedia may temporarily go dark to protest the bill, which critics say gives movie studios and other copyright holders unprecedented power to shut down websites seen as infringing on their content.

While websites and technology companies have the most to lose from the bill, consumers would clearly if websites were forced to restrict the posting of user-generated content. Given that Wikipedia is among the most popular sites to allow such user control, it makes sense to alert its millions of users of the bill’s potential impact on its daily operations.

Of course, the most immediate impact of such a blackout would be that English-language users won’t get to use Wikipedia for the duration of the protest. Considering that Wikipedia gets 2.7 billion page views a month, that means that a blackout of just one day could mean close to 300 million Wikipedia page views that get blocked. For people who rely on the website for research – especially students – such a one-day blackout could prove disastrous.

Such a move would be unprecedented for the English Wikipedia, though not for Wikipedia as a whole. In October the Italian Wikipedia temporarily went offline to protest a proposed wiretapping law that would have forced websites to take down information that an applicant believes is biased upon request. As Wales notes, “The Italian Parliament backed down immediately,” and he suggests that a similar initiative in the U.S. “could be even more powerful in this case.”

Wales is considering alternatives to a full-blown blackout, and one Wikipedia user involved in the discussion suggested that pages initially be presented as blank, accompanied by a warning about SOPA. Users would then have the option to either learn more about the bill or proceed to their destination. Wales responded positively to this alternate proposal, which would echo a previous effort by blogging platform Tumblr to temporarily censor user-generated content upon first logging in.

Whether any of the proposed strategies go through will depend on Wikipedia’s user community, which responded positively to the initial blackout proposal. However, Wales has also said that he plans to meet with President Obama’s advisers to discuss the bill, so the nuclear option may yet be averted. In the meantime, if you have any research to do, we recommend doing it now – or you might have to dust off your old encyclopedias.

Matt Brownell is a staff reporter for MainStreet. You can reach him by email at matthew.brownell@thestreet.com, or follow him on Twitter @Brownellorama.

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