Wikipedia 24-hour blackout: a reader

The who, what and why of Wikipedia's plan to shut down in protest of anti-piracy legislation.

Q: What is happening?

A: Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, will blackout its English version website to all global readers for 24-hours from tomorrow (18 January). On Monday 16 January, the non-profit, 501(c)(3) charity that operates Wikipedia -- the Wikimedia Foundation -- issued a press release announcing that 1,800 members of the Wikipedia community had together reached the "unprecedented decision" to temporarily shutdown the site after 72 hours of consultation. Sue Gardner, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, also released a statement.

Wikipedia attracts 25 million global visitors a day, is available in 282 language versions, and contains over 20 million articles created, contributed to and edited by an international community of 100,000-plus volunteers. According to comScore, Wikipedia and its sister sites receive over 474 million unique visitors each month. As of January 2012, Wikipedia is ranked the 6th most popular website in the world by Alexa Internet. The Wikimedia Foundation is based in San Francisco, California, and its Chairman Emeritus and co-founder is Jimmy Wales.

Q: When is it happening?

A: Wikipedia's English-language site will be unavailable from 05:00 GMT on Wednesday 18 January. That's 5am Wednesday morning in the UK; Midnight Tuesday/Wednesday on the US east coast (Wednesday 00:00 EST); 9pm Tuesday evening on the US west coast (Tuesday 21:00 PST). The website is expected to return to its usual operations after exactly 24 hours.

Q: Why is it happening?

A: In October 2011, a bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced to the US House of Representatives, following the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) bill introduced to the US Senate in May.

The two bills propose laws that would expand the ability of copyright holders -- along with law enforcement, the US Department of Justice -- to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property and counterfeit goods through court orders. Depending on who had made the request, court orders could include:

  • Bars on search engines from linking to websites "accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement"
  • Bars on online advertising networks and payment facilitators -- e.g. PayPayl -- from doing business with accused websites
  • Forced blocking by internet service providers of access to accused websites

The Stop Online Piracy Act would also make unauthorized streaming of copyrighted content a crime, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

The SOPA bill is currently being debated by the House Judiciary Committee and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has scheduled a vote on the PIPA legislation for 24 January.

The Wikipedia Foundation stated that the "overwhelming majority" of its participants were behind action that would encourage the public to respond to the Senate and Congress bills. It said that "Wikipedians around the world, not just from within the United States" showed broad-based support for action; "that roughly 55 per cent of those supporting a blackout preferred that it be a global one, with many pointing to concerns about similar legislation in other nations." Addressing the political dimension of the decision to act, the Wikipedia Foundation said:

Although Wikipedia's articles are neutral, its existence is not . . . Wikimedia projects are organizing and summarizing and collecting the world's knowledge . . . But that knowledge has to be published somewhere for anyone to find and use it. Where it can be censored without due process, it hurts the speaker, the public, and Wikimedia . . . We believe in a free and open Internet where information can be shared without impediment. We believe that new proposed laws like SOPA -- and PIPA, and other similar laws under discussion inside and outside the United States -- don't advance the interests of the general public.

The blackout by Wikipedia co-incides with similar action by other websites, and goes ahead despite signals by the Obama administration that it was aiming to make changes to anti-piracy legislation. In a statement last weekend, three White House officials wrote:

While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.

In a statement from Wikimedia UK, chair of the UK chapter Roger Bamkin explained why British users would be affected by tomorrow's shutdown of English language pages:

Wikimedia UK is the UK chapter of the Wikimedia Foundation. We regard the SOPA and PIPA legislation in the United States as a threat to the current operation of Wikipedia. This could also affect Wikimedia's other projects operated under U.S. law.

The members of the Wikipedia community have been balloted to determine whether they wish to blackout Wikipedia on Wednesday and agreed that this should happen.

Wikimedia UK is an independent British charity that defends the decision of our membership.

Q: Who is supporting Wikipedia's decision?

A: Wikipedia is urging all of its readers around the globe to speak up on SOPA and PIPA: their press releases have invited US residents to visit the following website and contact their elected representatives in Washington; non-US readers are urged to express their opposition to the bills to their own State Department, Minisitry of Foreign Affairs or relevant branch of government.

Jimmy Wales has repeated the call today on Twitter -- @jimmy_wales:

All US Citizens: #WikipediaBlackout means nothing unless you call your Senators. Do it now! Give friends the number too!

Co-inciding with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, yesterday Wales quoted the civil rights leader on Twitter:

Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed, MLK. On Wednesday, Wikipedia demands

Deputy Chair of the Labour Party and Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee member Tom Watson took to the social networking site to show his support -- @tomwatson:

I'm with @jimmy_wales on SOPA (it would affect Britain), http://bit.ly/wd2zXI Worth letting Twitter boss @dickc know your views

Actor and technology enthusiast Stephen Fry shared the sentiment with his 3.7m Twitter followers -- @stephenfry:

Good for Wikipedia. Ashamed to work in an industry many of whose leaders have tried to push this revolting law through.

Other websites taking similar action to Wikipedia include Reddit, the user-generated social news site; Boing Boing, the zine-turned-group blog; and Cheezburger, the network of comedy image blogs. Wikipedia lists as other participants: A Softer World, Cake Wrecks, Destructoid, dotSUB, Free Press, Good.is, Good Old Games, little-apps.org, Mojang, MoveOn.org, Mozilla, Rage Maker, stfuConservatives.net, The Leaky Wiki, This is Why I'm Broke, Tucows and TwitPic.

Q: Who is against the protest?

A: Among the groups driving the legislation, the Motion Picture Association of America has come out in defence of the bill. MPAA's executive leading the legislation campaign, Michael O'Leary, called the action of Wikipedia and others "gimmicks and distortion," and told the LA Times:

It's part and parcel of a campaign to distract from the real issue here and to draw people away from trying to resolve what is a real problem, which is that foreigners continue to steal the hard work of Americans.

Twitter has declined to participate in the blackout. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo made his thoughts on the protest clear when replying to queries from US technology journalists -- @dickc:

@digiphile @jayrosen_nyu that's just silly. Closing a global business in reaction to single-issue national politics is foolish.

He elaborated in further tweets:

@digiphile Not shutting down a service doesn't equal not taking the proper stance on an issue. We've been very clear about our stance . . . We have been very active and will continue to be very active. Watch this space.

In December, Rupert Murdoch appeared before Congress to lend his support to the two anti-piracy bills. Following the White House statement referring to freedom of expression, the News Corporation CEO tweeted last weekend -- @RupertMurdoch:

So Obama has thrown in his lot withSilicon Valley paymasters who threaten all software creators with piracy, plain thievery. -

Read more about the SOPA protest at sopastrike.com and take action here.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder