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The Wikipedia Blackout: Congress and digital erasure

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Friday, 20 January 2012


Could it be possible? A world without the trawling, pervasive influence of Wikipedia? Or the vast quarries of information that can be gathered from a search on Google? The scene has been set by the latest Wikipedia advertisement. The language is pitched on a biblical level: 'For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history.' But enter the bogeyman, those participants in what Will Rogers called the greatest studio of the world – Congress. 'Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia.'

Wikipedia is being a touch disingenuous about the idea of 'free knowledge'. The concept is as spurious as a free market and free love. For 24 dark hours, students around the world have not been able to lift entire concepts and sentences gleaned from sources available at the click of a mouse. But one can be rather flippant about the pieties of internet freedom, giving the impression that Wikipedia is much like Borges's Library of Babel, till one realizes the grave impact the bills being posed by the US Congress might well have.

On the site, Wikipedia explained that it was being 'blacked-out' because of its protest 'against SOPA and PIPA'. This only applied to the English part of Wikipedia – happy is the polyglot who can profit from various other tongues. SOPA is short for the Stop Online Piracy Act (HR 3261), while the childishly named PIPA (S.968) is the abbreviation for Senate equivalent - the Protect IP Act. As ever, the target here is the ever sacred idea of copyright infringement, in this case, the sort committed by foreign web sites. The argument made by Wikipedia is that the measures as they stand infringe free expression and harm the internet at the same time.

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The studio of Congress can be distinctly quiet when it wants to be. Minimal scrutiny has been given to the bills. House Judiciary Chair and Texas Republican Lamar Smith, along with 12 co-sponsors, brought SOPA forth on October 26 last year. One hearing took place on November 16, with a 'mark-up' period on December 15 (Gizmodo, Jan 17).

The tech buffs are not impressed. For the tech blog Gizmodo (Jan 17), 'The beating heart of SOPA is the ability of intellectual property owners (read: movie studios and record labels) to effectively pull the plug on foreign sites against whom they have a copyright claim.' An example is offered. A site in Italy is torrenting a copy of The Dark Knight. The studio can then demand that Google remove the site from its search engine. Payment sites can be denied means of receiving remuneration. The sites' ISP could 'prevent people from even going there'.

The first line of targets will be websites directly involved in copyright infringements. SOPA, however, permits the government to focus on sites that provide information that frustrate the bill's censorship regime, thereby making it a restraint that may well be an infringement of constitutionally protected free speech. The order of the day then, is self-regulation. Social media sites will have to monitor, or rather police the content that is created on their own sites to prevent action being taken against them. Immunities will be granted to content providers who take independent action against those they believe to be infringers. The power to remove listings on searches is ominously clear.

Mounted intellectual property actions will not need much scrutiny in terms of credibility. If there is a 'good faith belief' that a site has infringed the content being provided, IP owners are well within their rights to take action without a court appearance or judicial approval.

The Obama administration has made a statement that it 'will not support' any bill 'that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.' Despite the position taken by the Obama administration, it is worth nothing that the Senate can still bring PIPA to the floor, even if modified. Elements of SOPA may well also be revived.

The invidious scope of the bills is considerable, demonstrating yet again that politicians, even those who object to a highly regulated environment, will happily curb the freedoms of the broader public provided it can be justified in the context of some legal protection.

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One does not have to be a card carrying Wikipedia follower, a devotee of rampant, unencumbered cyber surfing to realize that the scope of such bills is dangerous. In its most extreme form, it could see the liquidation of the digital life – a life of content in the form of messages, photos and information that might be legally erased, should the need arise. The regulators will be thrilled, but there are the very sort of regulators we can do without.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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