It was an unprecedented protest. The Internet blackout staged on Wednesday by a number of prominent American websites in opposition to anti-piracy legislation has sparked widespread debate over online freedoms in the country.
Led by Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, which blacked out its site for the day, thousands of other sites also expressed their opposition to the proposed legislation, which they claim is tantamount to censorship. Search engine giant Google put a mock censorship bar over its logo for the day, and many of the sites that took part in the blackout urged users to contact their lawmakers about the proposal, which is meant to cut access to foreign websites that provide copyrighted content or counterfeit products.
But opponents argue that the bills threaten free speech and online innovation. On its darkened webpage, Wikipedia warned users that "the US Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet."
The protest action appeared to have had some success by day's end, with some members of Congress dropping their support for the corresponding bills, known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House of Representatives and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) in the Senate. Meanwhile some former supporters of the legislation accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of trying to rush the Senate version of the bill.
Hollywood Maintains Support
Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri called the proposals "deeply flawed." His fellow party members, Senators Marco Rubio and John Boozman, also said they could have "unintended consequences."
But figures on the other side of the issue, including the film and music industries, redoubled their efforts to gain support for the proposal. An anti-piracy group called Creative America, backed by Hollywood studios, guilds and unions, began an ad campaign it planned to air in key legislative districts. The organization claims online piracy costs US workers in film and television some $5.5 billion each year.
With public opinion shifting against the bill, along with the recent threat of veto from the White House, the future of the legislation now seems uncertain. "I don't think it's going anywhere," Republican Representative Tom Price, head of the House Republican Policy Committee, told news agency Reuters. His colleague, House Speaker John Boehner, said there was a "lack of consensus" on the issue.
On Thursday German commentators explored the implications of the online blackout, with some arguing that the protest action distracted from the real issue of fighting online piracy.
Financial daily Handelsblatt writes:
"Many Internet services are up in arms over SOPA. Yesterday thousands of websites took part in an unprecedented protest action by shutting down. There's a war between Hollywood and Silicon Valley. It's about censorship and hindering Internet innovations, one of the few strengths the US economy still has."
"When it comes to censorship, there's another problem. SOPA will ban websites from linking to others that violate copyright law. That may be obvious when it comes to the free, illegal downloading of films. But what about sites such as the controversial (whistleblower) platform WikiLeaks, which has published highly explosive documents that damaged the reputation of the US? With the argument that they want to protect copyrights, the state should not simultaneously create an instrument through which it can comfortably hide its own problems."
"In SOPA discussions, Washington politicians should be careful they don't simply allow the Internet to be restricted. There is already talk that it could be divided -- into a clean Internet and an unregulated shadow Internet in which users share ideas, forge ideas and eventually become the real Internet again."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"If Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia and the Who's Who of the Internet are to be believed then America is threatened by censorship through a tougher copyright law. Freedom of expression is under threat, they say, innovation will suffer and economic growth will be impaired. As a result, they claim, more jobs will be endangered through this than online piracy."
"No, this is not what it's about, even when the hardcore internet activists would like to create this impression. It is astonishing how their campaign has veered off course into populism."
"Of course copyrights need protecting online. Without exception, everyone should be punished who copies music, films and texts illegally, and then even uses ads or fees to make money off of their theft. Why shouldn't the creative industry be able to hold anyone responsible when their artistic property is misused? So far the fight against Internet piracy has been nearly hopeless."
"The film and television industry must finally bring themselves to provide themselves with better protection when it comes to digital sales. They should immediately make content available to the strongest sales platforms in exchange for licensing fees. They would thus turn the platforms into their partners. And that would lead to a strong interest in fighting piracy together."
The left-leaning daily Berliner Zeitung writes:
"The Internet culture has created its own forms usage and behavior, beginning with the fact that in an 'open' Internet, the author and public, the producer and user, are more difficult to distinguish and copyright hardly remains 'transparent.' The Internet has shown itself to have massive potential and to be extraordinarily dynamic. And in fact, where the Internet is at its most dynamic, copyright is among the first victims of Internet culture. It is where we, generation Google, have become experts in the art of copying texts."
"The tradition of protecting intellectual property rests upon a cultural norms. If the English Wikipedia site ignores this norm through a blackout, it is putting online an impairment of our consciousness which has long since become universal."