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Why is Wikipedia Down?

If 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 Bills

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.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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