Friday, January 20, 2012

A Day Without Wikipedia

A black cloud loomed over the world on January 18th as Wikipedia shut down in protest to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Simply put, SOPA, which Texan Republican senator Lamar Smith pulled today, sought to fight online trafficking of copyrighted material and counterfeit goods. The bill would protect intellectual property, such as songs and movies, and possibly curtail the distribution of counterfeit pharmaceuticals. To achieve these goals, advertising networks and payment facilities could no longer service websites accused of conducting such activity, and search engines wouldn't be able to display these sites in search results. As expected, the entertainment industry heavily supported this bill, while tech companies like Google, Wordpress, and Wikipedia vehemently opposed it. So how would SOPA actually affect us? Sites like Wikipedia and YouTube, which run on user-generated content, would face the risk of being shut down. A Wikipedia entry or YouTube video, which seemed to commit a copyright infringement, could be quickly shut down. Furthermore, search results would be censored, no longer showing honest results for our queries. Check out this infographic from Mashable to learn more.

What otherwise would be a normal Wednesday afternoon, became a memorable day in tech history as SOPA rose to the forefront of American consciousness. It was nearly impossible to escape SOPA as it was present everywhere, from the TV at the gym to my Facebook newsfeed, it seemed like everyone was talking about it. There were even 2.4 million Tweets about the impending legislation! Many sites decided to protest the website along with Wikipedia. Wednesday's 'Google doodle' featured a large crooked black rectangle slapped on top of the site's famous logo, and Wired censored most of the content on its homepage with black rectangles. See this Mashable slideshow for some more blocked sites.

SOPA-talk no longer focused on protecting the intellectual property of artists and others, but now concerned protecting the right to access information on the internet. The internet and its information-sharing capabilities have become an important part of contemporary culture--for many, these information-sharing platforms have became an extension of ourselves. We rely on YouTube to experience the joy of listening to our favorite songs or rewatching old tv clips. We rely on Wikipedia to look up facts and figures, and Blogger to express our thoughts and opinions. As I was watching the latest episode of Modern Family on Wednesday night, I wanted to know Sofia Vergara's age and immediately jumped to Wikipedia for the answer (only to be presented with the blocked homepage shown above). Legislators and others question, however, at what point, does information-sharing become illegal distribution? As internet piracy and counterfeit cost the US thousands of jobs and billions of dollars each year, perhaps the self-indulgent activity of information-sharing may be causing more hurt than good. There are certainly lots of issues to weigh when it comes to this issue, but the SOPA controversy further demonstrates the ways in which technology continues to shake up outdated legal, cultural and social norms.

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