Robert Hampton

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18th January 2012

SOPA Opera

Photo of "closed"Today was the day of the great protest against SOPA, the draconian law currently being debated by US lawmakers which would introduce harsh penalties for anyone sharing illegally copyrighted content online. The proposed law is strongly supported by most of the large media conglomerates (and Louise Mensch) who want to crack down on online piracy. However, critics claim that SOPA is a broad and far-reaching piece of legislation which will stifle innovation and individual freedom online.

We were promised a day of action, with high-profile web sites “going dark” for the day to draw attention to the chilling effect the proposed law would have on online free speech. Lots of big names were mentioned, but did they actually follow through? Well, yes and no.

Boing Boing and Reddit both did a full disappearing act, in both cases replacing their usual site with a holding page explaining the protest.

Screenshot of Wikipedia homepage showing blacked out screenWikipedia, at first glance, was also blacked out… but their blackout was a bit of Javascript trickery. Disable scripting (or go to the mobile site) and the information was still there, enabling savvier schoolchildren to continue cutting and pasting their GCSE coursework.

There was much excitement when Google announced they were joining the protest, but their “blackout” was little more than altering the Google logo on their homepage. Therefore, SOPA is at least as important to Google as the 110th anniversary of the Uganda Railway.

There was a rumour that Facebook would join in. They did post an anti-SOPA message, but the site itself is unaffected, to the relief of the millions who need to attend to Farmville and post photos of themselves drinking too much.

All things considered, today’s protest is a bit of a damp squid.

However, the lacklustre effort made by some today should not distract from the fact that SOPA is a real threat, not just in the US, but worldwide. Look at the case of Richard O’Dwyer, a British man who is fighting to prevent his extradition to the US to face copyright infringement charges, despite the UK authorities deciding not to pursue him. If SOPA passes, US officials could be knocking on doors of people all over the UK. Think about that next time you’re tempted to use a Katy Perry song as background music for that YouTube video of your cats.

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