"Paul Levinson's It's Real Life is a page-turning exploration into that multiverse known as rock and roll. But it is much more than a marvelous adventure narrated by a master storyteller...it is also an exquisite meditation on the very nature of alternate history." -- Jack Dann, The Fiction Writer's Guide to Alternate History

Monday, January 16, 2012

Wikipedia Wrong to Go Dark for SOPA Protest

The New York Times reported late this afternoon that Wikipedia plans to go dark - shut down - this Wednesday, just for that day, joining Reddit and other online sites in protest of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act now under consideration by Congress.

I think SOPA is an unconstitutional, dangerous waste of time - that is, a violation of the First Amendment that won't achieve its ends, and could cripple the Internet with its provision that sites could be liable for any pirated material posted on their online premises.  No site can possibly police every post - text or video - for adherence to copyright.

Wikipedia actually does a pretty good job of making sure every image on its site violates no copyright. But I think Wikipedia should not shut down on Wednesday to point out the danger of SOPA.

Wikipedia is a source of information,  a site which by its very existence stands up to ignorance in Congress.  It won't be able to make this point on Wednesday when it's shut down.  And in doing so, Wikipedia will inconvenience millions of people, including students of all ages, who rely on its services.

Wikipedia could make the same point by putting up a page about SOPA which everyone who goes to Wikipedia would see.  A page like that will indeed greet people when they try to go to Wikipedia on Wednesday.  What is gained by then preventing them from getting the information they're seeking?

In times of revolution, even just in opposition to authority, it is especially important that lines of information remain open.  The world will survive Wikipedia's day of darkness, but it is a wrongheaded, unnecessary move, and SOPA will be defeated without it.


Steve said...

I think blacking out is a good way to highlight the censorship variables in this bill. It is more likely to irrirate than words, and words today seem to fall on deaf ears. Actions shout, and the act of self-censoring in protest of impending censorship is bound to make more news and raise more eyebrows than more words.

Tom Cross said...

I think there is a reasonable debate about taking sites down versus putting up a splash page, but don't dismiss the overall importance of the protest or of Wikipedia's participation. It is not a coincidence that backpedalling on SOPA from Smith, Leahy, the House Majority leadership, and the Obama Administration, as well as the first in-depth television news coverage of the issue on MSNBC, came a few days before this protest. Heretofore they had managed to keep the issue off of television, and it was easy to dismiss the opponents as a small vocal group. After the protest that will no longer be possible, so all of a sudden people are starting to distance themselves. Wikipedia's participation is hugely important as it is one of the most prominent sites that chose to participate, and it reflects a community consensus rather than the opinion of a single business owner.

Paul Levinson said...

I understand that Wikipedia operates via consensus - and that's much more democratic than via a single owner - but in this case I think the consensus was wrong.

What your analysis makes no mention of is the inconvenience the shut down will cause. With no lead time, who knows how many students who left their papers for the last minute will get an unpleasant surprise when they try to go to Wikipedia on Wednesday. This has to be taken into account when assessing the pros and cons of flash pages vs. shut downs.

In a strike or work stoppage, at least the employers are inconvenienced, lose money, too. In Wikipedia's case, the only people inconvenienced are the public, who are not the authors of SOPA.

Tom Cross said...


I think there is a reasonable concern about the inconvenience this causes and if you read the thread on Wikipedia, this concern was raised in the discussion and Wikipedians were asked to consider the pros and cons of this. By a very large margin, it seems that Wikipedians wanted to send the most powerful statement that they could, realizing the significant negative consequences associated with these bills and the powerful forces arrayed behind them.

My post addresses the question of whether splash screens would be as effective. I don't think they would be, because people are used to ignoring interstitial advertisements on the Internet. Therefore, the strongest message that could be sent, required a full blackout of the site.

The community appears to be fully aware of the consequences of that choice. The protest doesn't target Congress directly. It targets the people in general, so that is who it inconveniences.

As the public statement announcing this decision reads, "This is by far the largest level of participation in a community discussion ever seen on Wikipedia." Wikipedians want everyone to know how strongly they feel about this issue.

Paul Levinson said...

Thanks for your additional, thoughtful comment, Tom.

But, again, the process by which a decision is made - in Wikipedia's case, by consensus rather than fiat - doesn't mean the decision is right, or the best that could have been reached.

And even on the consensus: did all the editors (i.e., everyone who writes) on Wikipedia have a chance to give input? My wife, who has nearly 23,000 edits on Wikipedia, didn't even know this discussion was going on.

Pk said...

If somebody was inconvenienced by an outage caused by some entity in the PIPA/SOPA circle of enhanced private police force, would they ask? Would it matter to them that students, human rights activists, or others were shutdown?

To me that's just as much of "the point" as the blackouts as anything else. A demonstration as to what this actually means.

Further, just because SOPA might be defeated w/o the blackouts doesn't mean they shouldn't be had as an example and reminder.

And I'm not following your last comment re your wife. If Twitter or anybody else decides to take down a site that somebody heavily comments on, for any reason, do they consult w/ all the participants? And indeed, Twitter or Identi.ca or most every social network, is even moreso content driven that Wikipedia. If they made a habit of it, or a habit of political statements, then those editors or persons not consulted could indeed comment or start pages to discuss/document the matter. -Pk

Paul Levinson said...

The point of my last point - about my wife on Wikipedia - was a response to Tom's repeated point that the decision to go dark was reached by consensus. I'm raising the question of how representative the consensus was.

As for the first part of your comment: so, you're saying that if X wants to do the something bad to Y and all who depend on Y, the best course of action for Y to oppose X is to give its dependents a taste of the bad thing itself? I'm sorry, but that just doesn't add up to me.

Tom Cross said...


I can't address Wikipedia's communications processes - I don't qualify as a serious editor and I didn't participate in this decision. I was aware of the discourse before the decision was made, but that is because I've been following SOPA developments. What level of participation qualifies you to participate in a decision like this as well as how you get notified that it is being made are both fair questions to ask.


Paul Levinson said...

Thanks, Tom - that's helpful and I appreciate your candor. It's good to know that there are people with your degree of rationality and fairness who oppose SOPA (even if we disagree on the particular method of opposition relating to Wikipedia).

Tom Cross said...

It turns out that Wikipedia is still accessible! From their protest FAQ:

Is it still possible to access Wikipedia in any way?

The Wikipedia community, as part of their request to the Wikimedia Foundation to carry out this protest, asked us to ensure that we make English Wikipedia accessible in some way during an emergency. The English Wikipedia will be accessible on mobile devices and smart phones. Because the protest message is powered by JavaScript, it's also possible to view Wikipedia by completely disabling JavaScript in your browser.

Paul Levinson said...

Good to know, Tom, thanks. Better nothing.

But as I just wrote over on Mediaite - today some child, somewhere, will be told by some bigot that Barack Obama is not really an American. And unless the child has a smart phone, he or she won't be able to log on to Wikipedia and see this is a lie.

The pro-SOPA people have contempt for Wikipedia - they probably wouldn't care it went away. Why give them what they want, even for a day?

Jason Bedsaul said...

Hi Paul,

Perhaps you have more faith in humanity than I, but I not only find Wikipedia's move shrewd, but necessary.

Less than a month ago, SOPA and PIPA were among the few bills that had bipartisan support and were being fast-tracked to passage. Stewart and Colbert were not discussing it, and for obvious conflicts of interest, News Corp, Disney, etc. were failing to report it in the mass media. That was until this past week when Wikipedia, among others, announced they would begin to protest publicly.

The media had no choice but to cover a story like that - a top 5 internet site goes offline for a day is news you have to report.

Aside from the increased coverage the move brings, it also brings the more apathetic into the sphere of concern. We have trained our brains to ignore ads and go directly for the content we intended to view. When presented with no other choice, we fill compelled to read what is placed in front of us.

I personally applaud their actions and hope that it has the desired effect of enlightening more people to the dangers of SOPA and PIPA.

Paul Levinson said...

I have no problem with protest, and even protest which inconveniences the public. An initial sign-on page, as I indicated in my blog post, which have alerted all people who signed on to Wikipedia, whether they wanted to see this or not.

And your facts are not quite right about the mass media not covering SOPA. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News all had stories well before the shut down. True, the stories were likely motivated by news that Wikipedia was considering a shutdown - but, then, there was no need to proceed with the shutdown.

The people who support SOPA likely don't care if Wikipedia disappears. I don't like Wikipedia giving them what they want, even for a day.