SOPA/PIPA – What is everyone talking about?

I’m usually not “in the know” when it comes to current events, whether it’s regarding international injustices or who-did-what-with-who-this-weekend.  In general, I’m just not as up-to-date as you are on what’s going on.  I’m very left out at the water-cooler.  I skip sporting events and watch the highlights.  I would be a terrible disappointment if I were a faraway visitor to an 18th century Jane Austen household.  And TMZ would never ever hire me.  Needless to say, the smartphone is an amazing field-leveling tool for me.

Instead of keeping up with daily headlines, I research topics one at a time, in depth, all in one sitting.  What can I say, my brain is single-threaded and pretty much always absorbed in its own rich and important stuff.  I assume, right or wrong, that if a piece of news is relevant to me it will reach me somehow (thank you democracy and Web-2.0).  Once I’ve heard a buzzword enough times (Darfur, Prop8, Balloon Boy), I’ll look into it.

Basically, tell me what was trending yesterday so I can catch up.


This brings us to today’s research topic, which is old news for you but new news for me: the SOPA/PIPA legislations.  Here’s what I found.

The Terms:
SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) is the House bill, PIPA (Protect IP Act) is the Senate bill.  The impetus of these is to crack down on foreign websites shamelessly (or even shamefully) sharing American copywritten material.  The sites in question are outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.

The Players:

  • Major supporters include the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and production studios like NBC Universal.
  • Major opponents include large internet properties such as Wikipedia, Google, and Facebook.  And everyone who uses one of these, it seems like.  A worldwide blackout has been organized for Wednesday, July 18th (now), in which over 7000 sites including Wikipedia will shut down for 24 hours.
  • Earlier this week, the Obama administration also announced its opposition to SOPA/PIPA via the White House blog.

The Stakes:
(Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and I haven’t read the actual bills.  This is based entirely on shady internet research and hearsay.)

  • While U.S. websites are technically unaffected, the onus of screening and blocking the offending foreign material falls on U.S. companies.  There are provisions to enjoin search providers to de-index offending sites and for ISPs and DNS servers to block them.  Opponents claim that this is not only onerous, but also fundamentally interferes with the basic nature of the internet.
  • If ISPs think a site is “guilty”, they can blacklist it in good faith without a court order.  Some opponents make comparisons to foreign regimes who censor the internet liberally and without process.  Slippery slope argument.
  •  One provision allows for blocking sites (US or foreign) from providing information on how to get around SOPA/PIPA blacklists.  Not only is this burdensome (think about Facebook, Twitter, or Blogger having to scrub user-generated content for this), but it also raises concerns about censorship and freedom of speech.
  • Rupert Murdoch and other players in Hollywood and TV urgently express the need to prevent a repeat of music-industry-circa-2000.  Entertainment makes up 3.5% of the GDP, employs 2.2 million people, and even if it didn’t – intellectual property should still be protected and artists should get paid.

The Editorial:
I hear you Rupert, I really do, but there has to be a better way.  Trying to police the content of the internet like this is unwieldy and unscalable, like herding more and more kittens and parakeets – together.  Frankly, even if this passes, it’s not going to work to end piracy.  There are always workarounds, new websites, new workarounds, new websites.  “The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

If you want to learn more about the protest and how you can be involved, check out Google’s SOPA/PIPA page.

SO, how does the Wikipedia blackout work?

Like I said, I am not a lawyer and I haven’t read the bills actual.  But I may just be a software developer after all.  I had always assumed (that is, for the last 3 hours when I knew about it) that the wikipedia blackout would be implemented by an url redirect.  I thought the “code review” would be a couple of guys fidgeting with a config setting in an ops dungeon somewhere (sexist imagery).

Just to be sure, I refreshed my wikipedia window at 9:01 PST and noticed in the address bar that there was no redirect, and that the original page had even rendered for a few seconds. A little bit of source code snooping and firebug magic reveals that there’s a script running that adds an overlay div (mw-sopaoverlay) and adds a display:none style to all the content blocks.  So if you yourself add “display:none” to ms-sopaoverlay and then remove the display:none style from #mw-page-base, #mw-head-base, #content, #mw-head, #mw-panel, #footer – you could have this!

A beacon of light in a sea of darkness. 

Why am I on Mackenzie Rosman’s page?  Today I was also investigating the breaking news of Justin Timberlake’s engagement.  That took me to Jessica Biel, which took me to Seventh Heaven, which got me here.  I could never make it at TMZ.

If I really were a real developer I might have written a little browser addon (GiveMeMyWiki!) that would have disabled script on Wikipedia and taken care of all of this for you…

…or you can do what I do and use Wikipedia mobile for all your bar-bet-settling needs over the next 22 hours:

2 Thoughts on “SOPA/PIPA – What is everyone talking about?

  1. Google Trends would be your perfect companion. SOPA is #4. Seattle Weather is #2 today. Go figure!

    Herding parakeets is pretty easy. Adding a cat to the herd would be the trick, like inviting Newt Gingrich to a party.

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