Wednesday, November 16 is the first ever American Censorship Day in honor of the first House hearing on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and most of the internet seems determined not to repeat the ironic holiday next year. Actually, "pissed off with a purpose" might be a better verb to describe the collective sentiment around the House's SOPA, which is similar to the Senate's stalled PROTECT IP bill. Buoyed by nearly $200 million worth of lobbying from Hollywood, the fast-moving bill would enable the U.S. government to effectively blacklist so-called "rogue" websites that violate intellectual property laws. Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and leaders in the entertainment industry strongly support the bill, citing the need for stronger laws to clamp down on piracy. But on a fundamental level, the bill invokes comparisons to China's firewalled web, since it would effectively enable the government to censor the internet. This has digital rights advocates up in arms, and everyone from the Mozilla Foundation to Google has joined the fight for the right to a free and open internet.
Silicon Valley vs. Hollywood
One would expect civil rights organizations like the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) to send some lawyers to a congressional hearing, but Silicon Valley's biggest player are equally as engaged. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and a few other heavy-hitters sent a letter (PDF) to the ranking members of the Senate Judiciary Committee voicing "support for the bill's stated goals" but strongly opposes the current version due to measures that "pose a serious risk to our industry’s continued track record of innovation and job-creation, as well as to our Nation's cybersecurity." Prominent venture capitalist Fred Wilson echoed this sentiment on his blog. "These bills were written by the content industry without any input from the technology industry," Wilson says. "And they are trying to fast track them through congress and into law without any negotiation with the technology industry."
Meanwhile, the Judiciary's official stance uses similar wording to express the opposing point-of-view. The announcement for Wednesday's hearing touts Congress's "commitment toward ensuring that law enforcement and job creators have the necessary tools to protect American intellectual property from counterfeiting and piracy." Other government agencies are jumping on Hollywood's bandwagon. In her prepared testimony, Copyright Office director Maria Pallante endorses SOPA, framing the current version of the bill as "the next step in ensuring that our law keeps pace with infringers." She continues, "It is my view that if Congress does not continue to provide serious responses to online piracy, the U.S. copyright system will ultimately fail."
The Internet vs. SOPA
Because most of them weren't invited to the hearing, a massive group of internet users has taken the issue into their own hands. We could spend all day listing the many bloggers voicing opposition to SOPA, but a more populist movement is emerging en force. The organizers of American Censorship Day offer up a toolbox of ways to protest on a purpose-built website that includes links to resources, videos and an infographic. (Click here to see the whole thing.)
The real thrust of the resistance comes from a host of websites that are censoring themselves in solidarity with the anti-SOPA protest. Tumblr is the most aggressive site we've seen, redacting the majority of the content in users' feeds:
Other sites are using a tool provided by the American Censorship Day that pastes a "Censored" banner over the site's logo. So far, the censored logos appear on reddit, BoingBoing, Creative Commons, Grooveshark and about two dozen others. Other sites like the Mozilla Foundation and EFF are facilitating mass letter-mailing campaigns, supplying language for people to include in theirs. One startup called SendWrite is even automating the entire mailing process for 3,000 people, through a custom-built interface that will send a physical letter to members of Congress if you fill out an online form.
If you're still having a hard time wrapping your head around the law, the anti-SOPA organization Fight for the Future put together a very pretty, very one-sided explainer on Vimeo. Vimeo, by the way, is an example of a "rogue" website that could be blocked by the current legislation. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, reddit, Tumblr and countless others fill out that list in a sobering way. Did we mention that China already does this?