Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What Happened to Wikipedia and Google?

I'm frequently writing about Google Doodles in this blog.  But today's Google "Doodle" is different than any before, at least as far as I know.  Today the famous logo does not appear at all, but rather is blacked out by a big black box.  However, at least that popular student resource is working.  If students go to the English site of Wikipedia, they will discover that it is down for 24 hours.  In its place is a short protest against two pieces of legislation and a request, complete with links to contact your representatives (according to the zip code you enter) and then tweet about it or post it on your Facebook page, to express your opposition to the bills.

The legislation in question is the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).  The goals of both these acts is to protect US intellectual property, primarily from foreign sources that are selling it as their own.  The main supporters of the bills have been Hollywood and other entertainment producers who are trying to shut down foreign bootleggers of commercial media, such as illegal downloads or DVDs of US films and TV shows, music, etc.

So the goal is something that I think most of us would support.  People shouldn't be making money by providing us with illegal copies of performances they don't own and that the performers themselves don't make any money for, right?

The issue that many Internet-based companies, and many of their customers, have is that these bills address the problem not by going after the illegal producers themselves, but the sources that give these illegal producers access to American consumers online.  So, rather than suing or arresting the bootleggers, SOPA and PIPA allow the producers to take action against anyone who provides services or even has links to the illegal websites and demand that they block any US access to this site.

Many in the online community have major issues with this approach.  Some consider this approach to be censorship, which they vehemently oppose in any form, despite the reason.  Others argue that the legislation as written is overly broad and would impose onerous burdens on even the smallest Internet companies. Yet others say that this is just the wrong way to address the problem of intellectual privacy.  As Alexis Ohanian, the founder of Reddit (another online resource that has gone dark for the day), says about this legislation, "It's like taking action against Ford (Motor Company) because a Mustang (car) was used in a bank robbery."  Reddit has a lot of educational information about this issue (albeit more anti-legislation than pro) as does the SOPA Strike website.

So as much as we might hate losing our Wikipedia (along with lots of other informational sites) for the day, this is a great opportunity for discussing with your children or students some of these issues, such as the downside of everyone (including criminals) being able to access everyone in the world, and what is the best way to deal with problems like this.  (Besides, only the English site of Wikipedia is down, so you can search in a different language and work on your translation skills along with researching the subject.)

And if you think your students will use this as an excuse to play games rather than do their research on the Internet, don't worry--MineCraft is one of the sites that has joined the blockout.

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