A Black Day for Free Speech

Today, lazy music writers and smartphone-toting trivia cheats can commiserate over a common problem: Wikipedia has blackened the English-language version of its encyclopaedia for 24 hours.

The action is part of a wider campaign against two controversial bills being considered in the US - the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). Both bills are strongly supported by motion picture and music industry anti-piracy lobbyists.

Users attempting to view Wikipedia's English articles are instead shown a blacked-out screen, offering information about the SOPA/PIPA legislation. *Source: en.wikipedia.org, accessed January 18, 2012*

Users attempting to view Wikipedia's English articles are instead shown a blacked-out screen, offering information about the SOPA/PIPA legislation. Source: en.wikipedia.org, accessed January 18, 2012

But critics argue that whilst many may support the bills' legitimate intentions to curb piracy, they bestow upon US authorities unprecedented powers to censor online media with a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach, infringing the rights of innocent parties in the process. The legislation - if passed - would also affect sites beyond US borders. Last November, Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt labelled SOPA “Draconian”.

Salman Khan (founder of khanacademy.org, which hosts 2,700 free educational videos on topics ranging from advanced algebra to the Cuban missile crisis) has produced an eleven-minute video explaining the proposed legislation and its startlingly broad impact. Khan provides a clear, highly visual elucidation of the laws and the ways they could empower authorities to effectively destroy websites like Facebook, YouTube or any which allows users to post comments (including yours truly).

The New York Times meanwhile has offered an open-ended discussion on the issue, with Room for Debate posing the question, ‘What’s the best way to protect against online piracy?’. Those offering their considered responses include representatives from the Motion Picture Association of America, Copyright Alliance, Cato Institute and BrainPickings.

Wired.com 'censored' its website with black redaction marks. *Source: wired.com, accessed January 18, 2012.*

Wired.com 'censored' its website with black redaction marks. Source: wired.com, accessed January 18, 2012.

With the bills to be considered by the House and Senate in coming weeks, some politicians have already changed their stance. But whether or not the laws progress further, the tense relationship between freedom of speech and protection of intellectual property is unlikely to be resolved simply.

A list of protesting sites can be found at Mashable, or by visiting SopaStrike.com, who coordinated the protest. You can scroll through a gallery of blacked-out pages at GigaOm. For a more irreverent take on the blackout, see The Oatmeal’s protest: we don’t want to spoil the surprise, but it’s an animated GIF featuring Oprah, a koala and a whole lot of love.

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