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Wikipedia blackout shakes Web, catching some users off-guard

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amny Photo Credit: The Wikipedia blackout/Getty

Years from now, you'll sit back in a rocking chair with your grandkids on your knee, and you'll tell them the story of January 18, 2012: The day Wikipedia went dark.

Okay, maybe it's not that dramatic, but today does mark what is likely the largest collective protest of Internet companies ever to happen.

Google, Wikipedia, BoingBoing, Reddit and countless other websites and portals either went completely dark or strongly voiced opposition today to SOPA and PIPA, Senate and House bills that aim to stop piracy but whose opponents argue are too far-reaching and could damage the fundamental infrastructure of the Internet.

"SOPA and PIPA are badly drafted legislation that won't be effective at their stated goal (to stop copyright infringement), and will cause serious damage to the free and open Internet," Wikpedia writes in its explainer for the blackout.

"They put the burden on website owners to police user-contributed material and call for the unnecessary blocking of entire sites," Wikipedia continues, encouraging people to contact their representatives to voice opposition.

(Here's how to beat the blackout, care of The Wall Street Journal.)

Google's less dramatic – but still highly visible – protest links to a page on the search engine's homepage that says the bills "would censor the Web and impose harmful regulations on American business."

While the protests are of course meant in earnest, uninformed Web users were caught hilariously off-guard, as high schoolers nationwide panicked, unable to do homework and projects without the assistance of Wikipedia's vast knowledge-base.

Still, not every major tech company is on board with such theatric displays. Facebook and Twitter declined to participate despite their opposition, saying they were not prepared to sacrifice a day's worth of revenue and risk the ire of users for a protest whose impact on lawmakers would be hard to gauge.

The legislation has been a major priority for entertainment companies, publishers, pharmaceutical companies and many industry groups. They maintain the proposed law is critical to curbing online piracy they say costs them billions of dollars annually.

The bills, the House's Stop Online Piracy Act and the Senate's PROTECT Intellectual Property Act, were seemingly on the fast track for approval by Congress until the White House criticized aspects of it over the weekend.

The legislation has been a major priority for entertainment companies, publishers, pharmaceutical companies and many industry groups. They maintain the proposed law is critical to curbing online piracy they say costs them billions of dollars annually.

"This publicity stunt does a disservice to its users by promoting fear instead of facts," said Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a sponsor of SOPA. "Perhaps during the blackout, Internet users can look elsewhere for an accurate definition of online piracy."

Former Senator Chris Dodd, who now chairs the Motion Picture Association of America, labeled the blackout a "gimmick" and called for its supporters to "stop the hyperbole and PR stunts and engage in meaningful efforts to combat piracy."

Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, which aims to create a transparent government, said the in-your-face public lobbying effort was "very effective."

"It's a way of engaging the public in something that had been a very much behind closed doors kind of business as usual in Washington thing," he said. "Obviously lobbying and campaign contributions are important, but members of Congress still need to get 50 percent of the vote. If a significant portion of their constituents are affected by something ... and go to the other side, you can lose your seat. That's what makes this such an interesting confrontation right now.

(with Reuters)

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