Wikipedia’s blackout: the next stage in online protests

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The university library is always a superb location for observing the idiosyncrasies of student-kind, but the Wikipedia blackout led to a new and rather amusing phenomenon. But, watching people furiously tap away at the laptop’s ‘escape’ key in an attempt to circumvent Wikipedia’s temporary blockade was more than just an entertaining pastime; what you could observe was a new style of protest that has the potential to engage millions in our modern, virtual age.

Wikipedia wasn’t the only major website taking part in this protest either. While users of the open-source encyclopaedia were greeted with a black screen and the evocative statement, “Imagine a world without free knowledge”, visitors to reddit, WordPress, Google and even fantasy game Minecraft were greeted by some form of protest, from deliberately censored versions of their sites to blacked-out homepages.

Behind this mass online action are two anti-piracy bills currently passing through the American government. The general aim of the Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (Pipa) is widely supported – namely, to take action against pirate websites that make illegal versions of media freely available to download. However, the new, extensive powers that would be accorded to the American authorities are being contested.

Clamping down on media pirates is essential. The lost revenue to the film and television industries is, by some estimates, costing the global economy £432bn a year. The bills propose strict custodial sentences for those regularly streaming illegal content and powers to shut down sites that are providing links to such content with a court order, but the controversial technique of Domain name blocking has been taken out.

Whether or not these bills present a genuine risk to internet freedom is a moot point. After all, Sopa is still passing through the House of Representatives and Pipa is currently being discussed in the Senate. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales argues that the bills are damaging to the future of internet innovation and form the start of a slippery slope towards Chinese-style website blacklisting. Meanwhile, figures from the media world are desperate to preserve the sanctity of copyright with stronger regulation.

A crackdown on piracy is essential and I believe in stronger powers to protect copyright, but without mystical foresight, there’s no way I can predict how the legislation will ultimately develop. Yet, what is most exciting about the mass blackout on 19th January was not what they were protesting about, but how the protest took place.

When these large websites decided to publically protest, the web became a platform for truly global mass action.

From its inception in the early 1990s, the internet has been a space where people could air their views. From forums to blogs, to the social media leviathans, Twitter and Facebook, people could publish their thoughts to the world. But, until recent times, it has all been rather sporadic. No uniting force has pulled together a cyber-universe of tweets, comments and content.

If we think of other political uses of web ‘space’, e-petitions of various types were another major development. They allowed groups of people to come together with like-minded views and begin to co-ordinate. The tongue-in-cheek page, ‘Stephen Fry for Durham University Chancellor’, has over 4,000 ‘likes’ at the last check. And, on a more serious level, disgruntled citizens can force their government to take action if they gather enough support on a page or group. But, last week’s action was another step forward.

Websites that command huge visitor numbers – the Wikipedias, Facebooks and Googles – possess incredible power to impact the lives of the lives of their users and, as a result, dramatically affect public opinion. Wikipedia is an internet titan. Its 20 million articles receive a reported 2.7 billion monthly page views in the United States alone. So, when they decide to do something radical, like the blackout protest, a huge amount of people that wouldn’t normally hear anything about the issues suddenly become aware.

Yet, the protest didn’t take place without a fair amount of criticism. David Aaronovitch in The Times bitterly disagreed with the principle of the protest, arguing that Wikipedia and the other sites involved should never have taken their services offline for what could be seen as selfish reasons. Wikipedia’s open source community could be a dangerous model to maintain if sites containing illegal links were readily shut down. And, I’m certain a vast number of students were pretty hacked off that they couldn’t easily check that vital date or detail in the rush to complete that essay due in the following day.

Call me a dupe, but I don’t mind the fact that a big website can make a decision to protest and therefore spread their views to a global following. The ideology of a free, connected internet drives Wikipedia, WordPress, Facebook, Google – in fact nearly all of the sites that staged some form of protest. If you believe in that principle too, then you can’t deny that their motives were honest.

Wikipedia was an open source website protecting the principle of open source, and it is that quality that makes the website so incredibly useful for us all. We are living in a global village with the internet connecting us all. Wikipedia was merely making the population of this global village aware of a possible threat to their freedom. Any other site that connects the billions on planet earth is now able to do the same.

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