At the stroke of midnight this morning, popular Internet sites went "dark" in order to protest two anti-piracy bills under consideration in Congress: the House's Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate's Protect IP Act (PIPA). Instead of finding informative entries on topics of interest, visitors to Wikipedia's English website will find an ominous shadow of the usual logo with the following message:
Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge
For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia. Learn more.
On Google's home page, a black bar covers its iconic banner and links to an online petition opposing the bills. Under the search box, the site reads: "Tell Congress: Please don't censor the Web." Reddit, the popular social news website, replaced its usual content with a page describing its opposition to the bills, containing information on how to contact members of Congress, and a live update of latest news regarding the blackout. Mozilla is also participating in the "virtual strike" to protest the legislation, as are Craigslist and other websites.
The political message of the blackout is unmistakable: the proposed legislation would give the government unprecedented power to censor the Internet.
Whether the anti-piracy bills would result in censorship of the Internet is an important question worthy of debate. But what is beyond question is that corporations – like Google, Craigslist, the Wikimedia Foundation, Mozilla, and others -- have a right to free speech protected by the First Amendment.
That is what makes it so surprising that Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots have joined today's protest against SOPA and PIPA. For months, the Occupy Movement has been telling us that corporations, like the ones involved in today's "virtual strike" have no free-speech rights. Now they oppose SOPA and PIPA on the grounds that these laws would censor content on the Internet. But if corporations have no right to free speech, what prevents the government from shutting down websites of corporations right now, even without authority under SOPA or PIPA? Would members of the Occupy Movement really be in favor of a world in which the government could censor anything a corporation said? Eugene Volokh asks a related question in his post.
Imagine a world without free-speech rights for corporations. One thing is for sure: it would look much worse than today’s blackout.