The Wikipedia community announced late yesterday that it would initiate a site-wide blackout of its English language encyclopedia beginning at 5:00 UTC (whatever that is) on Wednesday, January 18, 2012. The announcement was made in banner ads across the site and explained on the Wikimedia Foundation site. In response to some early criticism about the move, Sue Gardner, the Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director stated in her post that, “although Wikipedia’s articles are neutral, its existence is not.” This appears to be exactly the sort of dispute that prompted President Obama to announce his opposition to the Stop Online Privacy Act and PROTECTIP Act.
What will happen to people when they lose access to the enormous repository of information found in the crowd-sourced encyclopedia? Hopefully it will inspire them to read more about the proposed legislation and its potential impact on the very framework of the Internet. Ideally, they will find their way to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s list of reasons why SOPA must be rejected. It seems fairly clear from the language in the bill that, if powerful media interests in Hollywood didn’t ghostwrite the thing entirely, that they had a supporting role in the drafting phase. The desperation to root out piracy is palpable. Yet, we’ve learned from the success of iTunes, Spotify, even Napster’s rebirth–and the abject failure of DRM technology–that Draconian measures to stop piracy are neither necessary nor good business. People are willing to pay (a lot of) money for content if they feel they are getting a fair deal. Ninety-nine cents for a song is a now a no-brainer and we’re not far off from a similar standard in visual media.
Technology companies like Apple, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Google are just starting to figure out how to profit from video content. Why would anyone risk computer viruses and identity theft from bit torrents when they can just toss a few bucks at the nearest tech company for high-quality all-you-can watch content? There still be people out there who want to cheat the system, but they’re moving to the fringes, not the mainstream. Back when I was in college, everyone I knew who studied abroad in China came back with binders full of DVDs that they bought on the street. I bet none of those discs has been touched in five years because watching Netflix on your iPhone is so much more convenient.
What I’m trying to say comes down to two things: First, I hope the Wikipedia protest is successful or at the very least unnecessary due to the President’s opposition to the bill; Second, I hope that people also start to realize that piracy is a bugbear that groups like the RIAA and MPAA like to drag out in an effort to scare people into preserving their dying business model. You can’t force people to buy products they don’t want. CDs and DVDs used to make a lot of money for studios and chains like Tower Records, but the future is in the cloud. A bill like SOPA that could vaporize the cloud must not be allowed to strangle the fundamental right of people to freely access information. Laws protecting dying industries may temporarily ease the pain for those special interests, but they cannot stop the inexorable march of technology and the freedom that springs from it.