Wikipedia, others staging anti-SOPA blackout; White House weighs in

Wikipedia, Reddit and other websites are staging a silent protest Jan. 18, taking their sites dark to show their opposition to controversial anti-piracy legislation in Congress.

The Wikipedia community announced Jan. 16 that it would shutter the English-language version of the site, the sixth most-visited on the Internet, from midnight-to-midnight Eastern Standard Time in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act currently before the House and the Protect IP Act in the Senate.

The companion bills are intended to protect online content against copyright infringement, but opponents, which include some of the largest operations on the Web, contend the bills are too broadly written, would hinder free speech and innovation, and could weaken security.

The White House also has voiced concerns about the potential consequences if the legislation were to become law.

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"This is an extraordinary action for our community to take,” Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said in announcing the blackout, “and while we regret having to prevent the world from having access to Wikipedia for even a second, we simply cannot ignore the fact that SOPA and PIPA endanger free speech both in the United States and abroad, and set a frightening precedent of Internet censorship for the world."

Other sites, including Reddit (which first proposed the blackout), Boing Boing, and the Cheezburger Network also will go dark., which produces an open-source self-hosted blogging tool, is offering its users a variety of plug-ins they can use to make their sites go dark for a specific time and/or post a protest statement on their pages.

Major Web players such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Mozilla and Tumblr oppose the legislation, though they won’t be shutting down their sites. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo called the blackout “silly,” tweeting that, "closing a global business in reaction to single-issue national politics is foolish." He later added that he was talking only about Twitter, not Wikipedia.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration issued a statement that, while not directly endorsing or opposing SOPA and PIPA, seemed to take the side of the opposition.

While acknowledging the importance of protecting intellectual property from piracy, “we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet,” the administration said in the statement, which came in response to an online petition.

It was signed by Victoria Espinel, intellectual property enforcement coordinator for the Office of Management and Budget, federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and Howard Schmidt, the administration’s cybersecurity coordinator.

SOPA and PIPA are backed by a wide swath of corporations, notably in the entertainment industry, that want to protect copyrighted material from piracy, particularly by foreign operations. Few argue with the need to protect intellectual property; the question is whether, as written, the cure would be worse than the disease.

“Let us be clear,” the White House statement read, “online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation's most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs.”

But the bills contain blocking provisions that opponents say could cripple free speech and commerce on the Web and security experts say would undercut the security of the Internet’s Domain Name System.

Provisions in the bills would require Internet service providers and search engines to either block rogue websites or redirect traffic away from them. Opponents say this could mean blocking a legitimate site if one of its offerings turns out to be counterfeit, and in the process blocking whistle-blowers and other posts.

And security experts say the requirements for blocking or directing traffic flies in the face of the effort to secure Internet communication with DNS Security Extensions, which authenticate responses to queries to ensure that links aren’t spoofed. The bills would require modifying DNS responses, which is the opposite of what DNSSEC is designed to do.

“The bill seeks to codify something that we in the DNS community have been working to prevent for 15 years,” Cricket Liu, general manager of the Infoblox IPv6 Center of Excellence, told GCN.

The White House’s statement also acknowledged this danger, saying the provisions could “pose a real risk to cybersecurity and yet leave contraband goods and services accessible online. We must avoid legislation that drives users to dangerous, unreliable DNS servers and puts next-generation security policies, such as the deployment of DNSSEC, at risk.”

The security concerns are being heard. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) recently said he won’t bring SOPA to the floor until its flaws are addressed and there is a real consensus on the bill. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said PIPA will move forward in the coming weeks despite the concerns.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has floated an alternative bill, the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act, which would treat online piracy as an unfair trade practice, enforced by the U.S. International Trade Commission, and would not include blocking provisions.

In its statement, the administration promised to work with all parties, including those outside of Congress, to find a solution. “This is not just a matter for legislation,” the statement’s authors wrote. “We expect and encourage all private parties, including both content creators and Internet platform providers working together, to adopt voluntary measures and best practices to reduce online piracy.”

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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