Wikipedia Goes Dark To Protest Anti-Piracy Bills

Wikipedia and dozens of websites went dark Wednesday to protest two bills in Congress that the entertainment industry says are needed to protect American movies and music from so-called "rogue" websites — foreign-based sites that specialize in copyright infringement.

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If you tried to visit a Wikipedia content page today, you were likely disappointed. The online encyclopedia joined dozens of other websites in a blackout to protest legislation pending in Congress that critics say will censure the Internet. That legislation appears to be losing support on Capitol Hill, more on that in a moment. But first, NPR's Laura Sydell reports on the blackout.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: It was a hard day for Patrice James. She does social media for a marketing firm and her job involves a lot of research about people and companies. Today, she understood the importance of Wikipedia in her life.

PATRICE JAMES: I didn't realize how much I use it until it's gone, and that's usually the case with most things. And I'm like, wow. I have to - it adds extra work.

SYDELL: But the one entry that was visible on Wikipedia today told its readers that Congress was considering legislation that would block access to any foreign site that offered unauthorized files of movies, music and TV shows and other intellectual property. James got the message.

JAMES: I'm all for them trying to lower piracy, but to censor people, their thoughts, that's - it's reminding me of "1984," actually.

SYDELL: Though James lives in Canada, she says she's upset because the legislation will target websites outside of the U.S. as well as block search engines from offering links to those sites.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Stop SOPA, pass on PIPA.

SYDELL: Hundreds of protesters were in front of the New York City offices of Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. Both co-sponsored legislation known as the Protect Intellectual Property Act, or PIPA. The acronym for the House legislation is SOPA, or Stop Online Piracy Act.

Among the speakers at the demonstration was NYU professor and author Clay Shirky. He pointed out that Hollywood and traditional media companies have spent millions of dollars lobbying for the bills because, Shirky contends, they don't want to spend money suing websites.

CLAY SHIRKY: You have to accuse them of something and then you're going to have to prove the accusation, and that takes a long time, and that takes a lot of money. And you can see why traditional media industries wouldn't want to take on that hassle.

SYDELL: But those same industries do have a long history of lobbying Congress. Rey Ramsey, the president and CEO of TechNet, a nonpartisan lobbying group for the tech industry in D.C., says Silicon Valley techies have generally tried to avoid Washington.

REY RAMSEY: They're cut off of a cloth which is very entrepreneurial, sometimes individual, sometimes libertarian. It's not a regulated industry like many other industries, and it is learning how to play in Washington.

SYDELL: Today's protest surely shows an awakening of the industry as to how it can flex its muscles. Along with Wikipedia, such other smaller but popular sites like Reddit and Boing Boing also blacked out.

Former Senator Christopher Dodd, who now heads the Motion Picture Association of America, called today's demonstration childish.

CHRISTOPHER DODD: It sorts of reminds me of kids who can't get their way hold their breath and start screaming, instead of engaging with the debate and providing information, encouraging a discussion on how this can be improved. It just seems petulant to me.

SYDELL: Dodd says people should be talking about all the jobs being lost in the entertainment industry because of piracy. For her part, Wikipedia user Patrice James says she's getting the point, though she's going to need a drink by the end of the day.

JAMES: I'm going to need a couple of them to get me through this day.

SYDELL: Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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