It wasn’t just Lolcats, either. Reddit switched off. And something called Wikipedia (which, as a journalist, I’ve never visited). It was a dark day for the internet. Literally: black screens.
The collective might of the internet was campaigning against something called Sopa, which is a Motion Pictures Association of America-backed group that wants to force search engines to stop directing people to sites that distribute pirated material.
Sopa, for the uninitiated, stands for the Stop Online Piracy Act. The use of the word “online” is important for two reasons. Firstly to provide clarification that they are not protesting about people who hijack boats; those people are fine, in the eyes of the Motion Pictures Association of America, or at least they are not an A1 priority. Secondly, because “Spa” doesn’t really work on a placard. “Spa 4 Eva” sounds like something Thora Hird might have advertised.
The Sopa campaign had been trundling through Congress quite nicely until this week, presumably because no congressmen wanted to admit they had no idea what all the fuss was about. The blackout, though, was impeccably timed to coincide with the hangover from the Consumer Electronics Show, a void in which technology news transmutes into a substance rarer than Dune’s “spice”.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was leading the charge, meaning more pictures of him peering ubiquitously from the ether like a bearded Welsh Stalin (of course, it’s all well and good for Wales to close his site for the day when it relies on donations instead of ad clicks. He could just as easily shut it down for six months and go travelling around Peru, or demand the entire internet is cancelled, just for larks).
On the face of it, the Sopa crowd has a reasonable argument: “Piracy is killing us, please sort it out”. But the internet isn’t something you can legislate. You’d be as well trying to legislate against the moon (I’ve tried – it didn’t even return the court papers). Blocking torrent sites like isohunt.com would have zero impact on piracy, just like shutting down LimeWire made no difference – it just shifts elsewhere.
Asking Google to block specific sites is like asking BT to weed out specific phone calls on the off-chance the person making them might be up to no good.
The Obama administration effectively scuppered the act on Tuesday anyway, rendering the blackout somewhat redundant (and icanhascheezburger settled for a banner protesting against Sopa rather than a full site closure). The internet, inevitably, won – in the same way the ocean inevitably wins against a drowning swimmer.
Apologies if this column is riddled with errors, by the way, I couldn’t get on Wikipedia to check my facts.