Remember the day the internet went dark around 4 years ago? Maybe you were trying to write a high school paper like I was, and opened Wikipedia to find a grey screen that said “Imagine a world without free knowledge,” or you opened google to find a black box over the logo. It probably didn’t really effect your work (just like I shouldn’t have been using Wikipedia as a source anyway), but what the blackout stood for certainly could have changed the way we use the internet, forever.
On Jan. 18, 2012, over 100,000 websites participated in the protest against SOPA and PIPA, the House’s “Stop Online Piracy Act” and the Senate’s matching “Protect Intellectual Property Act”.
Although I steal almost all of the music I listen to, I even side with the bill’s intentions to prevent websites from selling or distributing pirated copyrighted content. The problem that arose with these bills was in the method of prevention.
Instead of attacking the pirated material, the bills would prevent access to the websites that shared the material. Under the stricter bill, SOPA, any website that even provided a tool for illegal downloads could be blocked, regardless of the intentions for the tool. Under PIPA, the site had to have no other significant use other than copyright infringement in order to be blocked.
While both would block websites like Pirate Bay, especially SOPA could shut down entire sites like Reddit or Tumblr. These sites are used for everything from sports to fine art, but all of the content is posted by users, and of course some illegal content is posted.
Should the 15+ million people that use Reddit in a given month be censored because somewhere on the site you can download “Finding Nemo” for free? Absolutely not.
Should the illegal copy of that movie be removed? Probably.
Thankfully there is already the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) for that. This law from 1998 allows copyright holders to request the removal of pirated content, and even sue for damages. Anything more that could easily be abused for unnecessary censorship.
The Obama administration recognized this issue in 2012 and issued a statement that “Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small.”
SOPA and PIPA planned to shut down these websites by either blocking their domain name or cutting their funding by forcing business partners to end all deals with the site, including advertising, search engine links, and listings.
Although companies could be self-funded, they could no longer be found on search engines or other websites, nor could their domain name be searched. Essentially, the website would not be destroyed, but would be made impossible to find.
Or would they be?
With an IP address, any site can (and could) still be found on the internet.
While Google, Wikipedia, and other sites inspired over four million emails, ten million signatures, eight million phone calls, and four million tweets against SOPA and PIPA, Reddit users prepared for the worst and created a SOPA emergency list of IP addresses to circumvent the censoring laws.
Of course, users would have to save the list to their computer to avoid loosing it to censorship as well, but that was the least everyone’s worries on the day the internet went dark.