The fallout from Wikipedia and other Internet sites going dark for up to 24 hours on January 18 has been swift. The blackout action was taken by the site and others to protest proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) legislation in the U.S. House, which is aimed at preventing online piracy of electronic content in American publications.
Ironically, some of the most vociferous complaints about the blackout have been levied by Wikipedia editors, who fear that purportedly neutral sites like Wikipedia’s foray into advocacy will have a negative domino effect. As quoted in AP technology writer Peter Svensson’s January 18 online article “Wikipedia Editors Question Site’s Blackout ” (as it appeared on the Raleigh News & Observer site), Wikipedia editor Robert Lawton said “my main concern is that it puts the organization in the role of advocacy, and that’s a slippery slope….” Lawton and others like him think that Wikipedia is compromising its neutrality by in effect “fighting censorship with censorship.”
According to Svensson, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales countered such criticism with the following tweet: “The encyclopedia will always be neutral. The community need not be, not when the encyclopedia is threatened.”
According to the article, it increasingly appears that the SOPA bill is unlikely to pass, and that even if it were to do so, President Obama would likely object: “The White House raised concerns over the weekend, pledging to work with Congress to battle piracy and counterfeiting while defending free expression, privacy and innovation in the Internet. The administration signaled it might use its veto power, if necessary,” reported Svensson.
Maintaining the delicate balance between promoting free speech and protecting intellectual property from piracy is an issue libraries have historically faced in the print world, as Hackney Library has highlighted in its annual Band Book Tour open houses (which draw attention to the problem of historical and current attempts to ban books based on their content). As the Wikipedia protest and the responses to it illustrate, the problem has now moved with a vengeance into the online realm.