Was Wednesday’s Wikipedia Blackout A Sign Of Things To Come?

In case it passed you by, yesterday was Black Wednesday, or should that be ‘Blackout Wednesday’?

Wikipedia, the world’s largest free encyclopaedia, took down the English –language portion of its site yesterday, in protest at next week’s U.S. Congress vote on the SOPA and PIPA sister bills. For those who aren’t particularly au fait with the issues involved – here it is in a nutshell. SOPA ,the “Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA, the “Protect Intellectual Property Act”  are bills currently in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, respectively, aimed at stopping any copyright infringement committed by foreign web sites. These bills which have been lobbied for by the U.S music and film industry are viewed by many as a way of curbing the freedom of online expression.

The rights and wrongs of the matter are still being hammered out by both sides, but what can’t be disputed is that, should either of these bills become law, it will change the internet as we know it today for ever, and not in a good way either.

Now you might think that because this is going on over the pond, it won’t affect us or have any harmful effect on our lives or businesses.

Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. If the bills are passed they will impact just as heavily here in the UK. Regardless of which country you live in, the restrictions of SOPA and PIPA will without question affect the way we all use the internet in the future. It won’t matter whether you use the internet for business, communicating with friends and family on social networking sites, read news blogs, use the likes of Wikipedia for research purposes, or use the search engines to look for products and services: all of this will change. If your website is deemed or even ‘alleged’ to have infringed or breached copyright, then it can be taken down immediately, and removed from the search engines like Google. Even if the accusations are incorrect, a judge will order the site to be taken down whilst investigations are made. Effectively the passing of the bills will mean that everything on the internet will be subjected to the restrictive anti-free speech and anti-free information policies of SOPA/PIPA, whether the site is hosted in the United States or not.

The implications are worrying, particularly for business.

Even if you have a robust site with no duplicated or breached copyright content, if someone posts a dodgy link on your site without your knowledge, you run the risk of having the site closed down.  Advertisers, payment processors and internet service providers would then be forbidden from doing business with your ‘infringing’ site, and you’d be removed from the search engines. These moves could effectively kill a business stone dead.  There’s an argument to say that this potentially could amount to an open-ended and unregulated charter for sharp and unscrupulous business practice. It could certainly turn out to be the quickest way of silencing a business rival.

Now some have argued that the reaction to the proposals has been disproportionate; they maintain that some organisations, like Wikipedia are making a mountain out of a mole hill. That’s certainly not the case according to the free encyclopaedia site. In a statement on its website, Wikipedia argued:

“We are staging this blackout because, although Wikipedia’s articles are neutral, its existence actually is not. SOPA and PIPA will have a global effect – websites outside of the U.S. would be impacted by legislation that hurts the free and open web. Other jurisdictions are grappling with similar issues may also choose paths similar to SOPA and PIPA.”

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