Monday, January 16, 2012

Wiki blackout

Wiki anti SOPA banner

Maybe you've seen this. Wikipedia explain their actions here:
Wikipedia’s community calls for anti-SOPA blackout January 18

Now Wikipedia is a huge web presence, and this blackout may call more attention to the nefariousness of SOPA and PIPA than the mealy-mouthed and vague descriptions of them that you'll get from most major journalistic media portals.

From their statement:

It is the opinion of the English Wikipedia community that both of these bills, if passed, would be devastating to the free and open web.

Over the course of the past 72 hours, over 1800 Wikipedians have joined together to discuss proposed actions that the community might wish to take against SOPA and PIPA. This is by far the largest level of participation in a community discussion ever seen on Wikipedia, which illustrates the level of concern that Wikipedians feel about this proposed legislation. The overwhelming majority of participants support community action to encourage greater public action in response to these two bills. Of the proposals considered by Wikipedians, those that would result in a “blackout” of the English Wikipedia, in concert with similar blackouts on other websites opposed to SOPA and PIPA, received the strongest support.

On careful review of this discussion, the closing administrators note the broad-based support for action from Wikipedians around the world, not just from within the United States. The primary objection to a global blackout came from those who preferred that the blackout be limited to readers from the United States, with the rest of the world seeing a simple banner notice instead. We also noted that roughly 55% of those supporting a blackout preferred that it be a global one, with many pointing to concerns about similar legislation in other nations.

In making this decision, Wikipedians will be criticized for seeming to abandon neutrality to take a political position. That’s a real, legitimate issue. We want people to trust Wikipedia, not worry that it is trying to propagandize them.

But although Wikipedia’s articles are neutral, its existence is not. As Wikimedia Foundation board member Kat Walsh wrote on one of our mailing lists recently,

We depend on a legal infrastructure that makes it possible for us to operate. And we depend on a legal infrastructure that also allows other sites to host user-contributed material, both information and expression. For the most part, Wikimedia projects are organizing and summarizing and collecting the world’s knowledge. We’re putting it in context, and showing people how to make to sense of it.

But that knowledge has to be published somewhere for anyone to find and use it. Where it can be censored without due process, it hurts the speaker, the public, and Wikimedia. Where you can only speak if you have sufficient resources to fight legal challenges, or, if your views are pre-approved by someone who does, the same narrow set of ideas already popular will continue to be all anyone has meaningful access to.

I've written about this before, here and here. My impression is that a lot of people just don't understand the gravity of the threat. Possibly this is partly due to a general unease people have with the rapidly changing pace of technology, and they revert to an "if in doubt, better trust authority" mindset.


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At January 17, 2012 3:02 PM, Blogger rob payne said...

I admit I haven’t paid much attention to SOFA and PIPA. Laws already exist regarding copyright issues though obviously there are problems with overseas piracy but one wonders why this should require more legislation since it is obvious that such things occurred before the internet. It seems to me that this is a problem of enforcement of existing copyright law, not more legislation of which there is far too much of anyway. Internet providers are far from interested in policing copyright issues considering the money and time involved. And there are many people who earn a living and or extra money selling stuff on the internet that I imagine might be affected adversely by draconian laws. It seems to me this piracy only affects large corporations in the movie and music industry and one wonders just how much they are hurt by it.

At January 17, 2012 7:56 PM, Blogger Jonathan Versen said...

Hi Rob,
As is so often the case, the devil is in the details. In practical terms, SOPA and PIPA negate the rights of the accused, and create a set of conditions which privilege larger corporations over smaller ones, and the more politically connected over the less powerful, whenever there might be a copyright dispute.

SOPA allows a complaining party to have content they don't care for removed from a website and the web site shut down, just based on filing a complaint, skipping court hearings and trials and such.

Part of the problem is the real-world selective nature of enforcement. In all likelihood most people have potentially illegally obtained copyrighted material in their possession, in negligible quantities. (Most blogs that feature quotations or images from elsewhere probably are in violation of copyright, at least in a small way, even if they don't actually cause any tangible harm to the copyright holder, and the copyright holder is generally unlikely to go after you are me or your pal Digby, etc.

But imagine if, for example, a copyright holder can shut you down outright, without providing proof.

Presently the complaiant(if that's the right word) has to ask for the court to compel you to remove the offending material which might just be a few lines of text or an image on one article at a blog, out of dozens or hundreds of posts, and usually demonstrate that they've been harmed if they also want to collect financial damages.

Let's say that a major establishment news portal is scooped by some small-fry blog or indie news site, like Counterpunch or Consortium News or even Free Republic, and decides to just ask a judge to shut them down, alleging that they stole a story, without proof.

Or a songwriter wants to sue a major recording act, alleging that they stole an obscure song of his, and the big label turns around and makes a counter-claim, because they know they don't have to prove anything, and the judge is more likely to favor the better known and therefore more respectable party.

(Actually, SOPA borrows a page from the war on drugs in that respect, because it creates an incentive to shut people down sso you can take their stuff, or at least eliminate the competition.)

I wish I could post an image of the KFO-signal, a la a certain old time comic book superhero, and then maybe he could give you a better sense if the scenarios I'm spinning are reasonably gleaned from SOPA. But I don't want DC comics to get on my case.

At January 17, 2012 10:04 PM, Blogger rob payne said...

A very good comment, Jonathan, and I think you ought to post it as a regular post. This is a clear case of how the written laws benefit only those who write them while screwing those that are powerless. For the most part law is a farce. They only protect the privileged not the masses as is commonly believed. I mean sure, we all need traffic lights and rules of the road but that is entirely different from what most legislation is about. My impression is this PIPA and SOFA is a slap dash reactionary legislation that is slovenly written because some rich dudes might lose one Cadillac out of a fleet of 100. Likely typical of most legislation.


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