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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why Wikipedia is Down Today and Why It Matters To You

The big news today is that Wikipedia's down, and I suspect 93% of the country is largely mystified about why the titans of Silicon Valley are battling the titans of Hollywood over obscure copyright law. The truth is, we all have a dog in the fight. The thumbnail background is this: to combat foreign copyright infringement, content-producing companies--mainly in the film and video industry--promoted legislation in Congress (PIPA in the Senate, SOPA in the House). There is a real issue here, because movies get ripped off and streamed illegally all the time. When Warner Brothers spends six jillion dollars making an exploding boat movie, they have a right to want to earn money when people watch it.

Here's the problem:
Under the current wording of the measures, the Attorney General would have the power to order ISPs to block access to foreign-based sites suspected of trafficking in pirated and counterfeit goods; order search engines to delist the sites from their indexes; ban advertising on suspected sites; and block payment services from processing transactions for accused sites. If the same standards were applied to U.S.-based sites, Wikipedia, Tumblr, WordPress, Blogger, Google and Wired could all find themselves blocked.
Regulation isn't as easy as it seems. The past ten years have seen rather extraordinary changes in the way information is delivered. Until about the year 2000, if you wanted your voice heard, you had to go through gatekeepers in print, radio, and television--or set up your own magazine, radio station, or cable channel at insane cost. Now you can literally do it for free. Sites like Blogger, YouTube, Ustream, and Twitter have made it possible for people to get their voices online in exactly the same manner CBS, the New York Times, and NPR do.

Let's take beer blogs as one case in point. I started writing about beer for print sites in 1997--when some of them didn't even have websites. If you wanted beer news in 1997, you picked up an Oregonian or Willamette Week--or Zymurgy or All About Beer. In a certain sense, it was very cool to be a writer in that era--I had an audience orders of magnitude larger than I do now. But look at how we get beer news now: blogs, BeerAdvocate, tweets, direct communication from breweries via Facebook, and on and on. As people interested in beer, the current system is way, way better. We're awash in information--most of it archived and available any time we want to do a Google search. Magnify that effect across all fields and media and you can see the transformation.

The problem, of course, is that big media companies don't make money when you and I blog and tweet. Their profits have crashed since 2000. They don't want a free flow of "user-generated content." Their bottom line depends on eyeballs and eyeballs have lately been wandering elsewhere.

I don't want to overly inject this post with politics, but one way media companies can mitigate losses is not by adapting to changing environments and competing, but rather by using the force of law and regulation to rig the game. Copyrights are so valuable that authors hold them decades after they're dead. Music companies get revenues almost in perpetuity on art they had nothing to do with--but to which they own the rights. Disney has perverted copyright law profoundly all so it doesn't lose the chance to be the exclusive retailer of Mickey Mouse tchotchkes. For this, we have sacrificed an enormous amount of control over the creative and information realm.

Now big media is making yet another grab that will further bind up creative expression. They have some rights over the content they create and should have recourse in the face of theft. But they shouldn't have the power to stifle the rights of everyone else. [Cue cheesy, overwrought music] So, if you value your favorite beer blog, cat fancy website, or Joss Whedon tribute page, please stand with Wikipedia and oppose SOPA/PIPA.

We now conclude this public service announcement and return to our regular programing.


  1. You have PIPA (senate) and SOPA (house) backwards.

  2. I have had more issues with BoingBoing influenced mash up stealing of my intellectual property in the new e-conomy (and Google snagging my ad revenue through Google Reader) than I have had from the boogieman of the old economy. I see no pure sides in this debate.

  3. Anon, thanks. I've corrected it in the post.

    Alan, I see no pure sides either--reflected, I hope, in the way I wrote the piece. Obviously, I make a lot less blogging than when I write an article. (Though I wish media companies would find a new revenue model in light of a changing world.)

    But it doesn't matter which side you're on ideologically. The pieces of legislation in question are just badly written, with lots of unintended (or hidden) consequences and no real clear case that they'll even achieve their intended goal. Bad legislation is bad legislation.

  4. The real problem with these laws is that they put all of the burden on American content aggregators and search engines without attacking or prosecuting the actual infringing sites. Sure, having "" delisted may temporarily cost the site traffic and ad revenue, but the MPAA/RIAA/ESA are utterly delusional if they don't think those sites will simply pop back up the next day with a new name.

    For that matter, I'm guessing pirates will probably justcontinue migrating to Usenet and TOR in greater numbers. Both of them are already hubs for content theft, and neither can be touched by SOPA/PIPA because they don't rely on the public DNS servers to point people in the right direction.

    On a more lighthearted note, here's a great protest song that explains the issue quite well in terms anyone can understand. "The Day the LOLcats Died"

    Alright, back to beer.