A Bristol-based board member of the Wikimedia UK group has defended the decision for a ‘black-out’ of the Wikipedia online encyclopaedia, in protest against proposed American internet piracy laws.
Steve Virgin, from Fishponds, said the membership decision to shut down the English-language version of Wikipedia for one day was in protest against laws that would “threaten freedom of speech”.
The English version of the website became inaccessible at 5am GMT on Wednesday morning. Instead of a database of more than 3.8 million articles, visitors are greeted with an open letter encouraging them to contact Congress in protest.
Opponents of SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) argue they impose unfair responsibilities on websites such as Wikipedia to check that no material they host infringes copyright. Under current laws if websites remove pirated content when they are notified by the copyright holder they are not liable for damages.
The proposed laws also make it easier for American copyright holders to cut off access to foreign websites hosting unlicensed copies of films, music and television programs.
The legislation has been backed by an intensive lobbying campaign by major media owners, including Rupert Murdoch, and opposed by the giants of Silicon Valley, including Google and Facebook.
Speaking to Bristol24-7, Mr Virgin said: “A debate amongst global Wikipedians has been underway for the last few weeks about the merits of proposed SOPA and PIPA legislation in the United States.
“The community believe that if this legislation is passed it would undermine due process in the eyes of the law, threaten freedom of speech online and give sweeping and draconian powers to regulatory authorities, who would then be seriously tempted to misuse them.”
Wikipedia is the sixth-most visited website in the world, according to Alexa. The protest will be matched on other major websites such as Reddit, a popular link-sharing service, and is unprecedented for the English version of Wikipedia, although the Italian version mounted a blackout protest in October against new libel laws.
On Friday the White House said it would not approve key parts of the bills, however, effectively sending them back to the drawing board. A statement from President Obama’s internet advisors said the provisions for blocking foreign websites “pose a real risk to cybersecurity”.
Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia who visited Bristol last year to mark the organisation’s 10th anniversary, described the laws as “destructive”.
“This is an extraordinary action for our community to take – and while we regret having to prevent the world from having access to Wikipedia for even a second, we simply cannot ignore the fact that SOPA and PIPA endanger free speech both in the United States and abroad, and set a frightening precedent of internet censorship for the world.”