Wikipedia blackout does its job, experts say

Published: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 7:32 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 7:32 p.m.

Wikipedia withdrawal was an ailment suffered by many throughout Gainesville on Wednesday when the popular website would not let people search for the most arcane information about any subject — as a protest against potential legislation.

But while students in need of school-work trivia might have been fretting, University of Florida media and legal experts said the blackout was a brilliant move to call attention to the bills now in Congress.

"It is a great lobbying effort against these two pieces of legislation because it clearly called public attention to both bills. So strategically, it's a great move," said Clay Calvert, director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida. "The big picture is, it is simply a battle between the content creators against the content distributors."

The two main bills are the Protect Intellectual Property Act, or PIPA, in the Senate, and the similar Stop Online Privacy Act, or SOPA, in the House.

There are already laws on the books to combat domestic websites trafficking in counterfeit or pirated goods, but little to counter foreign violators.

The bills would allow the Justice Department, and copyright holders, to seek court orders against foreign websites accused of perpetrating or facilitating copyright infringement.

Proponents of the bill include the movie and television industry, which says it is losing income from the shows and films it produces. Critics say the bills could lead to Internet censorship.

UF students, who depend on websites, including Wikipedia, had mixed feelings about the blackout.

Jad Khouri, 21, uses scholarly sources to write papers for the anthropology department. But he admits that Wikipedia is one of his go-to sites on the Internet in everyday life. He supports the site's reaction to the pending bills, but agrees that something should be done to control pirated information.

"Information should be open to everyone, but I do believe in intellectual property and giving credit where it's due," he said.

David Roa, 21, is a senior finance major at UF who interned for Google last summer. Roa said he would be discouraged from working for an Internet company if the acts were to pass.

"They would destroy the profit of all of these companies, everything would get shut down, blogs would disappear," Roa said. "I would want no part of it."

UF law professor Elizabeth Rowe, director of Program in Intellectual Property Law, said the claims of the potential impacts if the bills were passed in their current state are likely being exaggerated by both sides.

"It's hard to know what is overblown and what's not. The truth is often somewhere in the middle," Rowe said. "There are interests that need to be protected from the (intellectual property) perspective. I do think that when we pass legislation, if we are not careful about the language, the potential for abuse is there."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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