Wikipedia’s SOPA Blackout Is a Brilliant Tactic That It Should Never Use Again

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Jan. 18 2012 3:49 PM

The Internet Goes Nuclear

Why the anti-SOPA blackouts are working—and why they should never happen again.

Screengrab of Wikipedia on Jan. 18, 2012.

Twitter didn’t actually call Wikipedia “foolish” for its decision to go dark Wednesday in protest of a proposed anti-piracy law, as some breathless blogs reported. What Twitter CEO Dick Costolo actually said is that it would be foolish for his own company to do the same. Pressed by a journalist on whether he would have the cojones to follow Wikipedia’s lead, he said, "That's just silly. Closing a global business in reaction to single-issue national politics is foolish."

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

He’s right. That’s why you won’t have any trouble logging on to Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, or Facebook today. Sure, they all have huge objections to the Stop Online Piracy Act, a House bill that would censor and potentially even shut down legitimate websites in a ham-handed attempt to get a handle on Web piracy. But for a big corporation, shutting down your services is the nuclear option. The collateral damage is huge, and it starts with your own revenues and reputation. Besides, it would be counterproductive. Google, Twitter, and Facebook are the best weapons SOPA opponents have in the fight to convince Congress to drop the misguided legislation.

For Wikipedia, the move makes sense. The online encyclopedia is not a global business. Rather, it’s a project of the Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit whose declared mission is “to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content … and to disseminate it effectively and globally.” For Wikimedia not to take a public stand against a law that threatens the free flow of information would be a dereliction of its values.

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Other websites that censored themselves Wednesday had their own good reasons for going nuclear. Reddit and Boing Boing are niche sites with loyal, tech-savvy users who are likely well-versed on SOPA’s evils. For those outlets, a blackout not only advances a worthy cause but generates publicity and lends them the online equivalent of street cred.

What’s remarkable about this protest is not that companies like Google aren’t doing more—it’s that they’re doing as much as they are. Google has blacked out its logo, an image that’s seen by hundreds of millions of people worldwide every day, all to exert some indirect influence over how a handful of legislators in Washington handle a single bill. It’s not quite the nuclear option, but it’s a huge display of force for such a narrow target.

And it’s working. By now, about the only people unaware of the bill are those on camping trips in the wilderness. Washington is starting to get the message too. A hearing originally scheduled for this Wednesday has been put off indefinitely. The White House responded to anti-SOPA petitions with a blog post on Saturday saying it wouldn’t support the bill in its current form. And House majority leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has reportedly assured colleagues that the bill won’t come to a vote until there’s consensus.

The Internet industry’s shock-and-awe campaign has left the entertainment industry stunned. SOPA is the tool Hollywood has craved for years to plug the holes in digital-copyright law that allow Internet users to get for free what artists, studios, and record companies produce at great cost. They thought they’d done everything right, outspending the tech industry 13-to-1 in Washington lobbying and wooing key players such as Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

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