Duncan Jefferies
18/01/2012 01:00 | By Duncan Jefferies, contributor, MSN Tech & Gadgets

Wikipedia blackout: what, when and why

Here's why you won't be using Wikipedia today…

Why has Wikipedia shut down today?

Wikipedia is closed down in protest for the whole of Wednesday 18 January (© Wikipedia)

Wikipedia is 'going dark' for the day in protest at two anti-piracy bills being debated by the US Congress, Sopa and Pipa.

The site argues that if the legislation is passed it "will harm the free and open internet and bring about new tools for censorship of international websites inside the United States."

The decision to block access to Wikipedia was the result of a vote by the site's volunteer contributors. Today, rather than gaining access to Wikipedia's 3.8 million articles, visitors to the site will be greeted with an open letter encouraging them to contact Congress (or their State Department or Ministry of Foreign Affairs if outside the US) to complain about the proposed legislation. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales told his 46,000 Twitter followers: "My goal is to melt switchboards!"

It's the first time the English-language version of the site, which handles 234 million page views per day, has ever been shut down.

Sounds like trouble. So what's Sopa?

Sopa stands for the Stop Online Piracy Act, which is currently being considered by the House of Representatives in the US.

It is supported by television networks, music labels, film studios, book publishers and manufacturers, who claim it is needed to combat online piracy and protect jobs. Pipa, a similar bill, is being debated by the Senate.

Have your say!
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Do you think Wikipedia is right to stage a blackout?

Thanks for being one of the first people to vote. Results will be available soon. Check for results

  1. 81 %
    Yes, websites need to stand up against the bills
    1,358 votes
    6 %
    No, I think a policy like Sopa or Pipa is necessary
    108 votes
    13 %
    I don't think it will make a difference anyway
    210 votes

Total Responses: 1,676
Not scientifically valid. Results are updated every minute.

Pipa? Isn't she the one with the bottom?

No, stop interrupting. Pipa stands for Protect IP Act. Both bills propose that anyone guilty of repeatedly streaming copyrighted content without permission could face jail.

The US government and copyright holders would also have the power to seek court orders against sites they believe are encouraging piracy, which could lead to the site being 'removed' from the web.

US-based internet service providers, advertisers and other companies would also be banned from doing business with alleged copyright infringers. Sopa, if it became law, might also require search engines to remove these sites from their results. Pipa, however, would not.

Other than Wikipedia, who else is campaigning against these bills?

Lots of people. In particular, companies like Google, Yahoo, eBay, LinkedIn and Facebook, who feel the new laws would be too draconian.

They think they would stifle innovation and also infringe upon free speech. Going after domain name providers would also be futile, and damage the architecture of the web, they argue. Wales called it "the worst internet legislation he has ever seen."

US copyright holders might be able to cut off access to foreign websites hosting unlicensed content. This has led some commentators to liken Sopa and Pipa to the 'great firewalls' in China and Iran, which prevent citizens from accessing certain parts of the web.

Under the new laws websites such as Wikipedia and YouTube would also have to check that all the material hosted on their site is free from copyright infringement. At the moment, if websites are notified of pirated content on their site, and then remove it, they are not liable for any damages.

What does President Obama think?

He's not so keen on Sopa. On Saturday the White House said it would not be backing several aspects of both bills, particularly the blocking of certain domain names.

"We will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cyber security risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global internet," said three of Obama's technology advisers.

Just before the White House statement was issued, Texan congressman Lamar Smith, a major sponsor of Sopa, said the Domain Name System (DNS) blocking part of the bill (which would enable sites outside the US to be blocked) would be dropped.

Wikipedia said its blackout would go ahead regardless, as Wales does not believe that "Sopa is fully off the table" and claims "Pipa is still extremely dangerous".

Hasn't Wendi Deng's other half stuck his oar into the debate?

What, you mean Rupert Murdoch? Scourge of the House of Commons' Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and favourite target of pie-throwing comedians? Well, yes, he has actually. He tweeted that President Obama "has thrown in his lot with Silicon Valley paymasters". Hardly surprising he's a bit peeved about opposition to Sopa, seeing as he owns roughly half the world's copyrighted material.

But the privacy bills are US-based. If passed, will they affect the UK?
In a word - yes. Either policy, if passed, will have a major affect on the way you use the internet. Any foreign website with its domain registered in the US would be affected, plus if a site outside the US goes against Sopa/Pipa's regulation, US sites and search engines must remove any links to it and US service providers would have to block access to it.

Of course, all those American websites you read or use from the UK would be affected to - if SOPA goes through, sites like Wikipedia, Tumblr, WordPress, Blogger and Google could find themselves blocked worldwide, unless every link provided within its pages is checked to ensure it doesn't contain copyright infrigning content. A tough job to say the least.

I run a small website, should I be worried?

Unless you're hosting, or providing access too, copyrighted material you won't be in the firing line should Sopa or Pipa become law. However, if your blog is plastered with images you've cribbed from elsewhere on the web, clips uploaded from TV shows or movies, or contains links to file-sharing sites that host copyrighted films and music, you might be in trouble.

How can I possibly write my homework/essay/plan to take over the world without Wikipedia's help?

Umm, books? You know, those papery things that libraries use instead of wallpaper.

But even though there are countless weighty tomes that can help with research, the loss of Wikipedia will still be a blow to many of its 100 million English-speaking users. Wikipedia is well aware of this fact. "Student warning!" Wales wrote on his Twitter account on Monday. "Do your homework early. Wikipedia protesting bad law on Wednesday."

There is one bonus to the site's temporary closure: you'll be able to make up all sorts of obscure facts today, and none of your friends will be able to check whether you're lying or not. By the way, did you know the Queen has her own royal submarine?

Is there really no way of accessing the site?

There are a few: if you find the article you want via a web search, and click on the 'cached page' link instead of visiting the Wikipedia site itself, you'll be directed to an archived version of the page instead. You can also visit the Wikipedia mobile site via your mobile browser or via an app.

Can I join in with the protest?

You certainly can. You could shut down your own website or blog for the day in solidarity (there are even WordPress plugins to help you do this). Alternatively, you could join the Twitter users who are having a tweet blackout. Anti-Sopa and Pipa groups and events have also sprung up on Facebook.

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