A number of high profile websites are going dark today to protest the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). The bills are designed to protect intellectual property holders by toughening measures against copyright infringers. Opponents say that aspects of the bill pose grave threats to free speech and internet entrepreneurship, with some high profile web-masters claiming that the bill, if passed, would threaten the very existence of their sites despite not hosting copyright-infringing material directly. Wikipedia, Reddit and Boing Boing are among the sites effectively shutting down today.

What would the bills do?

It's complicated, but in essence, SOPA and PIPA would bring tougher direct penalties against overseas websites providing copyright-infringing material. SOPA appears to go further, seeking to cut funds and traffic to such sites by requiring U.S. hosting, advertising and financial transaction companies to notify and suspend services to the website. A court order against the infringer would be required to commence the process. In the House of Representatives, there is currently no date set for a vote on SOPA, but the Senate is due to vote on PIPA on January 24.

So what's the problem?

Opponents claim that the bills are badly written, with loose terminology opening up the broader web to potential abuse. In a post on Boing Boing, reprinted today at the Consumerist, Cory Doctorow sets out his objection to the bill.

"Boing Boing could never co-exist with a SOPA world: we could not ever link to another website unless we were sure that no links to anything that infringes copyright appeared on that site. So in order to link to a URL on LiveJournal or Wordpress or Twitter or Blogspot, we'd have to first confirm that no one had ever made an infringing link, anywhere on that site."

Could Boing Boing really be shut down?

It seems unlikely, but may be legally possible under the terms of the bill. Michael O'Leary of the Motion Picture Association of America (the debate surrounding the bills has been framed as Hollywood versus Silicon Valley) sought to calm such fears.

"This bill doesn't shut down websites. It doesn't make websites illegal," he told the BBC. "It's simply focused on websites that are engaged in criminal activity, that are stealing the product of American workers and profiting from it. If you are a legitimate site like Wikipedia, there's nothing to be concerned about here."

The recent case brought against Richard O'Dwyer under existing copyright law (albeit bolstered by the UK's uneven extradition treaty with the United States) over his TVShack website shows that U.S. authorities are willing to go after those that merely provide links to copyright-infringing material. TVShack may have provided such links in a abundance, but it did not directly host any such data.

Is that the only objection?

No. Twitter's general counsel, Alex Mcgillivray, points out that SOPA's "unit of censorship" is everything under the domain name at which infringing material appears, whereas its "unit of analysis" is the site or a portion of it. The implication is that one minor infringement can bring the whole site crashing down. On a website with millions of users, it's asserted that the actions of one could result in the removal of content for all the other law-abiding users.

Is it only Wikipedia, Reddit and Boing Boing going dark?

No. Other big names shutting up shop for some or all of the day include Oreilly.com, Mozilla, WordPress.org, TwitPic, and Destructoid, though at the time of writing not all blackouts had gone live. Google, Facebook and Twitter have publicly opposed SOPA but are not going so far as to blackout completely.

But I could really do with accessing Wikipedia today

If you have a paper due, all is not lost. A Google search of Wikipedia will allow you to access a cached copy by clicking the double arrow that appears when you mouse-over the appropriate search return. Alternatively, the mobile site appeared to be fully accessible at the time of writing.

Update:

Wikipedia is declaring yesterday's blackout a success, with a claimed 162 million visitors experiencing the darkened "Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge" landing page. A press release put out by the Wikimedia Foundation claims 8 million visitors in the U.S. used Wikipedia to look up contact details for their congresswomen and men to unanimously (or so the press release implies) protest SOPA and PIPA. "You said no," said Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director, Sue Gardner. "You shut down the Congressional switchboards, and you melted their servers. Your voice was loud and strong."

During the blackout, #factswithoutwikipedia, #sopastrike, and "Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge" all became worldwide trends on Twitter. One wonders just how many of the 162 million fully understood the blackout. Not all, that's for certain, judging by Nick Quaranto's dedicated Twitter account, @herpderpedia, which thoughtfully monitored and retweeted the resultant confusion.