Going dark: why you might be having difficulty accessing some websites

Have you been experiencing difficulty accessing some websites today, or seeing some strange messages about websites being on strike? Well, you are not alone, and for once, it just might not be your Internet connection acting up…

Today, 18 January, over 5,000 websites, including Wikipedia, Reddit, Mozilla, WordPress and Tucows, will be offline for parts of the day (between 12 and 24 hours) to protest recently tabled legislation in the US on piracy and intellectual property. So far, two bills have been the primary focus: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PROTECT IP Act or PIPA), which have been making their way through the House of Representatives and the Senate, respectively.

As discussed in our earlier posts, What could be the impact of SOPA on the Caribbean? and The PROTECT IP Act: what you need to know, the bills have been receiving wide support within the US legislature and among major copyright and trademark owners, particularly those in the film, music pharmaceutical and book publishing industries. On the other hand, they have been criticised extensively by leading online properties, civil, human and consumer rights groups, as well as recognised technical experts. Some of the concerns raised regarding the bills as drafted include:

  • conflicting with other pieces of legislation
  • undermining Internet security
  • damaging to web businesses, particularly tech start-ups and funding
  • limiting innovation, and
  • creating a dangerous precedent that may be adopted in other jurisdictions.

The video clip below provides some insight into some of the consequences of the proposed legislation.

Public protest

In December 2011, following a review of SOPA in the House of Representatives that did not result in any significant amendment, the public outcry began in earnest. An early and well-known casualty of the protest, GoDaddy – one of the largest web domain registrars and an early supporter of SOPA, found itself in the crosshairs when subscribers were encouraged to vote with their feet and boycott the provider. At the height of the controversy, GoDaddy was losing over 10,000 accounts per day, which eventually led to it rescinding its support for the bill:

“Fighting online piracy is of the utmost importance, which is why Go Daddy has been working to help craft revisions to this legislation – but we can clearly do better,” Warren Adelman, Go Daddy’s newly appointed CEO, said. “It’s very important that all Internet stakeholders work together on this. Getting it right is worth the wait. Go Daddy will support it when and if the Internet community supports it.”

In addition to such measures, people were being asked to sign petitions to influence their local representatives on the matter, and even to alert President Obama of the growing opposition to the SOPA and PIPA in particular. Late last week, the White House responded to the petition with a clear veto position:

…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… (Source: White House)

The current situation and beyond…

In the days leading up to the websites “going dark” today, opposition to the SOPA and PIPA appears to have gained traction. Last week, key sponsors of SOPA in the House of Representatives indicated that provisions related to the Domain Name System (DNS) blocking, which would have undermined Internet Security, would be deleted. However, by Friday, following release of the White House’s position on SOPA, PIPA and the lesser known Online Protection and Digital Enforcement Act, came word that a vote on SOPA, which should have occurred this week, would be postposed until a “consensus” could be reached (Source: Forbes). With regard to PIPA, Forbes notes,

…[m]eanwhile, the Senate is slowly dialing down its support its own copyright-protection bill, the Protect IP Act or PIPA. One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, has said he’s willing to remove DNS blocking from the Senate legislation, and a group of six GOP senators who previously supported the bill have asked for a delay in voting on PIPA until its effects can be further studied.  Representative Issa wrote that PIPA remains problematic, and could come to a vote soon. “Right now, the focus of protecting the Internet needs to be on the Senate where Majority Leader Reid has announced his intention to try to move similar legislation in less than two weeks,” he wrote.

Hence, the fight is not over. From all reports, a number of influential websites, plus hundreds of others, still plan to go offline today, encourage the public to maintain the pressure. It is almost inevitable and only a matter of time that additional intellectual property and copyright protection legislation be passed in the US. However, it still remains to be seen what form they will take and to what extent they might mimic these current bills, which have elicited such adverse reactions.

Image courtesy of DonkeyHotey, flickr

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