you're in the US you speak English and you visit Wikipedia today, you'll see a glimpse of the page you were trying to access, then you'll see the blackout message above. You'll see similar messages from Google, Reddit, and others. Why? Although each of these sites does a good job of explaining its position, here's a rundown of the issues involved in today's shutdown.
An Extremely Brief History Lesson
In 1998, the US Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a bill that, among other things, created a simple system by which copyright owners could request that infringing content be removed from websites hosted in the US. In short, the copyright owner tells the website, "I own this video/photo/song and you have to remove it, or I'll sue you." Then it gets removed, or they go to court. Have you ever seen a YouTube video that's replaced with the red sad-face? That's a DMCA takedown. This system has worked reasonably well for the past decade and a half, although there have been abuses -- sometimes copyright owners request removal of content they don't actually own. But in general, the DMCA has become accepted in the tech community as a reasonable part of doing business online.
The DMCA is not enough for some copyright holders, partly because it only applies to US-hosted websites. Citing questionable statistics about the impact of piracy, the Motion Picture Association of America, the US Chamber of Commerce, and others demanded more. That's how we get to the anti-piracy bills currently under consideration.
Two bills are currently being debated in the US Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate. Both were written to curtail online piracy of copyrighted content like movies and music; major backers of the bills include a laundry list of media companies -- in broad strokes, this is record labels and movie studios, though a few tech companies (most infamously GoDaddy) also support the bills. The bills are also heavily supported by the bipartisan committees considering them, although President Obama is against them.
Why today? There were supposed to be hearings on Capitol Hill today about SOPA. The various tech companies involved in today's protest timed their blackout to coincide with the hearings, to draw attention to them. But then the hearings were postponed...and the blackout continued anyway. Here's a snippet from a recent Ars Technica article:
Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), a SOPA opponent, announced Saturday that he is postponing hearings on SOPA's DNS provisions that had been slated for Wednesday, January 18 before his House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
"While I remain concerned about Senate action on the Protect IP Act, I am confident that flawed legislation will not be taken up by this House," Issa said. "Majority Leader Cantor has assured me that we will continue to work to address outstanding concerns and work to build consensus prior to any anti-piracy legislation coming before the House for a vote."
The net effect of this (likely as Issa intended) is even more attention to the issue, plus time for citizens to become aware of the issues and pressure their Congressional representatives. Indeed, Google and others are hosting petitions and encouraging US citizens to make a fuss.
What's the Problem? Piracy is Bad, Right?
The bills have unintended consequences far beyond stopping piracy -- at least, that's what the opposition says. The main objection is that the bills use a very blunt approach to "stopping piracy," which can be summarized as "breaking the internet" by blocking DNS access to domain names with any infringing content. What Wikipedia is saying (and for the record, I agree with them) is that the entire Wikipedia domain would be blocked for everyone, every time a piece of infringing content was found, under the provisions of SOPA -- and because anyone can post anything to Wikipedia, this could happen a lot. Wikipedia could also be prevented from receiving credit card payments -- which is actually important, because Wikipedia is funded by donations. This is a far cry from today's DMCA regime, where the actual infringing content is removed or a court case occurs, rather than blocking the entire website.
There are many excellent metaphors out there to describe what's wrong with the legislation's proposed techniques, but one written up by commenter TechBear on The Stranger's Blog is particularly easy to follow: "A friend of mine described the draconian measures to shut down internet providers as 'cracking down on mail fraud by arresting postal carriers.'" Indeed, DNS servers are like the mail carriers of the internet.
The other existential objection to SOPA/PIPA is the notion that it will quell new innovation online. In a SOPA/PIPA world, every new web service that allows users to post anything would have to live under constant threat of a shutdown. The logical outcome is you wouldn't build new stuff that let people post anything. If entrepreneurs are afraid to build new online services, our economy and our culture would be under threat.
Opponents of SOPA/PIPA tend to agree that piracy is bad. But they're saying these bills are the wrong way to stop piracy. In other words, stop the people committing mail fraud -- not the mail carriers. This video is a pretty good explanation of the situation:
What Do Supporters Say?
I know this is utterly reductionist, but the gist of it is "Nuh-uh." To be a little more fair, proponents of the bill (there are many in Congress and in industry -- and it's a very bipartisan group) say that they're trying to protect jobs and the economy. They suggest that piracy costs jobs, hurting the economy, and we must do something to stop it -- and specifically SOPA/PIPA is necessary to target not just domestic pirates, but international sites as well (this is code for "The Pirate Bay").
The New York Times ran this quote today:
“The bill will not harm Wikipedia, domestic blogs or social network sites,” said Representative Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas and a primary sponsor of the House bill.
Oh. I suppose Wikipedia, Google, Reddit, et al are all wrong about the effects of this legislation on their businesses.
What Happens Next?
We wait for a vote. Today, there are at least two Wikipedia pages that are still up -- those on SOPA and PIPA. Many opponents of SOPA/PIPA are promoting the OPEN Act instead. A list of striking sites is available from SOPA Strike. Read up on some more media coverage of the issue from The Week, or read my previous article on this stuff, What’s Wrong With PROTECT IP and SOPA?
Update, 20 January 2012: Just two days after the blackout protest, SOPA has been yanked and the PIPA vote has been postponed.