Skip Navigation

Close and don't show again.

Your browser is out of date.

You may not get the full experience here on National Journal.

Please upgrade your browser to any of the following supported browsers:

SOPA Blackouts: Free Speech or 'Abuse of Power'? SOPA Blackouts: Free Speech or 'Abuse of Power'?

This ad will end in seconds
Close X

Not a member? Learn More »

Forget Your Password?

Don't have an account? Register »

Reveal Navigation


Technology / TECHNOLOGY

SOPA Blackouts: Free Speech or 'Abuse of Power'?

Protests highlight fine line for websites

photo of Josh Smith
January 18, 2012

The unprecedented wave of “blackouts” and other forms of protest that swept the web on Wednesday was designed to call attention to legislation that critics contend will stifle free speech. But the dramatic move sparked debate over whether the protest itself was appropriate for websites that are often themselves arbiters of free speech online.

Among the thousands of lesser-known websites that blocked access to their content or posted statements against the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act and its Senate counterpart, the Protect IP Act, were big names such as Wikipedia, Craigslist, and the online news aggregator Reddit.

But the names not on the list highlight a fine line for companies that depend on neutrality to maintain their credibility.


While they oppose the legislation, Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter, whose CEO called the blackouts “foolish,” decided to sit the protest out.

Google, which is so sensitive to its neutral reputation that it recently punished itself after inappropriately promoting its own web browser, was among those taking a middle road. The search giant remained up and operating but blacked-out its logo and linked to a petition against the bills.

Supporters of the legislation, such as the Motion Picture Association of America, disputed not only the premise of the Internet companies’ concerns, but the decision to visibly protest, and in some cases self-censor.

“It is an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on them for information (or) use their services,” said former Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., president of the MPAA. “It is also an abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today.”

The Wall Street Journal, whose owner, News Corporation, supports the bills, took a similar view, calling the protests a “cyber tantrum” by companies and organizations that feel “entitled” to content. The paper argued that the protests represent a double standard for websites that claim they are dedicated to free speech.

“How's that for irony: Companies supposedly devoted to the free flow of information are gagging themselves, and the only practical effect will be to enable fraudsters,” wrote the newspaper’s editorial board. “They've taken no comparable action against, say, Chinese repression.”

And criticism of the protest came from some not necessarily in support of the controversial bills.

Some volunteer editors for Wikipedia expressed concern that the site’s dramatic decision to block all access to its U.S. website could undermine its reputation for a “Neutral Point of View.”

"My main concern is that it puts the organization in the role of advocacy, and that's a slippery slope," Michigan-based editor Robert Lawton told the Associated Press.

But the companies that joined the protest insisted they were well within their rights to speak up on an issue that affects them so directly.

"The encyclopedia will always be neutral. The community need not be, not when the encyclopedia is threatened," Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said on Twitter.

None of the organizations, companies, and websites that took part in Wednesday’s protests damaged their credibility, said Matt Wood, policy director for the advocacy group Free Press, which blacked-out its website.

“Being an arbiter of information shouldn’t handcuff an organization,” he said.

And Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who has proposed a competing anti-piracy bill, praised the protesting sites for participating in democracy.

“I know suspending and changing access to sites was not necessarily an easy decision, but this a responsible and transparent exercise of freedom of speech,” he said in a statement.

More Technology
Job Board
Search Jobs
Digital and Content Manager, E4C
American Society of Civil Engineers | New York, NY
American Society of Civil Engineers | CA
Neighborhood Traffic Safety Services Intern
American Society of Civil Engineers | Bellevue, WA
United Technologies Research Fellow
American Society of Civil Engineers | New York, NY
Process Engineering Co-op
American Society of Civil Engineers | Conshohocken, PA
Electrical Engineer Co-op
American Society of Civil Engineers | Findlay, OH
Application Engineer/Developer INTERN - Complex Fluids
American Society of Civil Engineers | Brisbane, CA
Application Engineer - Internships CAE/CFD Metro Detroit
American Society of Civil Engineers | Livonia, MI
Chief Geoscientist
American Society of Civil Engineers
Application Engineer - Internships CAE/CFD Metro Boston
American Society of Civil Engineers | Burlington, MA
Professional Development Program Engineer
American Society of Civil Engineers | Farmington Hills, MI
Civil Enginering Intern - Water/Wastewater/Site-Development
American Society of Civil Engineers | Sacramento, CA
Staff Accountant
American Society of Civil Engineers | Englewood, CO
Biomedical Service Internship Position
American Society of Civil Engineers | Flint, MI
comments powered by Disqus