Tried to get onto Wikipedia today? If you're from an English-speaking nation, then you were probably presented with the image above, and not the free source of community-built knowledge that the web encyclopedia is known for. And it's going to stay that way until 5am (GMT) tomorrow too.
Why? In protest to controversial US anti-piracy bills: The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its Senate partner, the Protect IP Act (PIPA).
The bills are intended to strengthen the position of intellectual property holders and content providers on the net, who argue their industries are being monumentally damaged by online pirates. Their argument is sound, but many feel the bills' combative methods are not; while the music, film and software industries may be protected by the SOPA and PIPA bills, Internet advocates fear the heavy-handed tactics proposed by the bills will lead to a stifling of free speech on the net.
The new legislation would support laws already in place to protect copyrighted material, like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). However, while the DCMA targets the removal of the infringing content, SOPA and PIPA set their sights on the platforms hosting the content, giving the Justice Department the power to hunt down even foreign websites, cutting their support (and often revenue streams) from US-based advertisers, ISPs and card companies.
It essentially means all webmasters worldwide would have to vigorously monitor their sites for infringing content, something that many feel not only crosses the line into censorship, but, in the case of massively popular websites, would also prove a gigantic policing task and resource hog. Start-ups couldn't defend against possible violations, and the Internet's growth would be cut short.
And while the legislation primarily targets foreign sites hosting the infringing content, even domestic US sites could face heavy penalties, just for linking to the foreign pages in question. On a community driven site like Reddit, which relies on the sharing of content and healthy, open forum it has created to survive, it could eventually spell the end.
As a result, many sites alongside Wikipedia (including BoingBoing, Mozilla, WordPress, TwitPic, MoveOn.org and Reddit) are putting a "blackout" blanket over their sites to illustrate the potential dangers of the bills. Other sites, like Twitter and Facebook, have not took part in the blackout, but have been equally vocal in opposition, while Google too has a protest doodle with the message" Tell Congress: Please don't censor the web" alongside it.
"Today Wikipedians from around the world have spoken about their opposition to this destructive legislation," said Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia co-founder.
"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."
It's been an important few days in the fight against the bills. While no-one questions the fact that Internet piracy is a massive problem for the creative industries, even the White House has now began to withdraw support for SOPA, awaiting modifications for the legislation.
However the Senate is still scheduled to hold a procedural vote on PIPA on January 24th, which could yet see the bill instated.
If you think this is primarily a US concern, think again. The USA, in effect, could potentially hold the entire web to ransom, and where the US leads, the UK is sure to follow with similar legislation on our own domestic sites. With so many massive companies and media conglomerate's bank-balances tied to the success of PIPA and SOPA, there is heavy pressure for the bills to be passed.
The Internet as we know it could be about to change forever.