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January 18th: SOPA and the Most Productive Day in Recent Memory

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Matt Gardner

Copywriting Team Leader

January 18th. Today's the day that the online working world will be most productive. Not-so-coincidentally, and in every way related to the previous statement, it also happens to be the day that Reddit, Minecraft, TwitPic, the Cheezburger network and - most recently - Wikipedia go into self-imposed exile for a day in order to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that threatens the very future of the internet community, whoever you are and whatever you do.

It's all happened so fast. I've drafted this blog five times now and I'm sure it'll probably be out of date by the time it goes up on the day itself. Damn you, newsworthiness. So, if you've missed the coverage in any way, here's a bit of a recap for you. SOPA happens to be, in the eyes of the more liberal and/or creative online networks, the worst thing to potentially affect internet freedom in the history of the technological frontier. While I could try and simplify it, the basic gist of it is as follows: "The bill would make unauthorised streaming of copyrighted content a crime, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison for ten pieces of music or movies within six months. The bill also gives immunity to Internet services that voluntarily take action against websites dedicated to infringement, while making liable for damages any copyright holder who knowingly misrepresents that a website is dedicated to infringement." The somewhat floral writers of SOPA - mostly backed by the American conservative right - have claimed that the bill is "[t]o promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of US property, and for other purposes". It carries over to international sites, too - advertisers, payment sites and ISPs would all be forbidden from interacting or working with infringers based overseas, such as those in the UK. SOPA even requires search engines to remove infringing websites from their search results (unlike PIPA, its not-so-offensive-yet-still-annoying cousin), which is a fantastically invasive law considering the money these online companies will make on behalf of the US government. Ever since Reddit posted a blog to explain its stance, plenty of sites have jumped on board with it to join the crusade. It's nicely fitting for a user-moderated community to lead the initial charge, though that's the wonderful thing about the ultimate democracy that Reddit provides - it reflects a fantastic spread of personalities, even if it's largely dominated by what Fox News calls "liberals" and "socialists" (British equivalent: relatively balanced people). As a result of this announcement, organisations decided to demonstrate their anger - such as Cheezburger, TwitPic and even Wordpress - in hope that Wikipedia would follow suit in a similar way to how it responded to the Italian government's wiretapping bill, therefore delivering immediate success. Still, while Reddit's actions resulted in plenty of headlines, it's safe to say that it relied on Wikipedia to turn the tables in the favour of internet users, as opposed to the companies and individuals represented by SOPA. Even the Cheezburger Network's Ben Huh, who operates Fail Blog, Failbook, Graph Jam and Memebase, said that fans of his actions should "go ask Wikipedia to do it" too. After weeks of arguments, the oft-discredited Obama administration finally weighed in with its thoughts. "While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response," it said, without mentioning the possible trial of Richard O'Dwyer, "we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet." A smart move from the forward-thinking and liberal governance associated with Obama (at least overseas). Then Wikipedia announced its intentions to blackout on January 18th. The anti-SOPA response was heightened to an almost critical mass, even though supporters of SOPA basically admitted that they would shelve it. Shelving is not good enough for online organisations that actively campaign for eradication, though, so the tribute to the ill-conceived copyright-destructive SOPA bill continued. Rupert Murdoch, continuing his campaign to be The Most Loved Man in the Universe, decided he would speak in favour of SOPA and claim that Obama was "pandering to Silicon Valley paymasters". Only then did the fight become one of good versus evil. Well, maybe. Many thought that it simply funnelled down into a matter of inevitable capitalism and consumer culture versus the rights of the individual. In regards to this battle, wise words came from Zack Whittaker of ZDNet's Between the Lines column, who rightly explained that the demonstration against the weakening SOPA bill could only be truly successful if Facebook and Google had a similar strike and cancel services in the US, or even worldwide - at least they would then be reflecting their own anger at proposals. "Both Facebook and Google have everything to lose should these bills pass through Congress," he explained, after giving links to both companies that would send emails of anti-SOPA sentiments. "But users of the free and open web, as we live and breathe it, have the most to lose. Not only are services crucial to our everyday lives under threat, our freedom quite literally hangs in the balance." Maybe Zack is right. Perhaps people are sick of seeing the puppy dog eyes of Jimmy Wales with yet another demand for cash. Our cash! For a free service! The scoundrel. Maybe these individuals would only get on board to destroy SOPA if their only free search engine and social network of choice is taken down for a day. Woe betide those faced with such hardships from these much-used no-cost sites. As these huge companies battle it out on our behalf - including myself, even though I'm British - it's easy to let them do their thing. Does this symbolic blackout gesture really mean that much, or will policymakers simply find a way around it with a future bill? As a person immersed in all things online, would you only get on board if the likes of Google and Facebook did, too? -@matthewgardner