For this editor, SOPA web protest left an impression

Yesterday's Stop Online Piracy Act protest by Wikipedia, Google and others demonstrated that the legislation could rock the very foundations of the web. It also made it very difficult for one ZDNet editor to do his job.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Boy, yesterday was tough.

If you're a curious sort like me, the day of protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act (SOPA and PIPA, respectively, like the names of two little pugs) really cramped your style.

Wikipedia was among the bigger names (others: Google, Reddit, our friends at Wired and Ars Technica), to black out their pages in some fashion, blocking content to demonstrate to users of their websites how the legislation could directly impact them.

Despite that knowledge -- in spite of it -- I visited Wikipedia more than 20 times yesterday to look up information. On a staggering array of topics, too: the Venus' Flower Basket sea sponge, a reference I had to check for a forthcoming SmartPlanet feature; the Juliet balcony, a term used in a news article I read; to beef bourguignon, yesterday's lunch. I found my left hand constantly hovering over the Esc key on my keyboard to halt the Javascript-prompted protest overlay.

That's how crucial a tool that website is for the average person to get a basic understanding of terms and topics in the 21st century. Just as the Microsoft Bing "search overload" advertisements attest, we have readily adapted to looking up things we don't know, instead of speculating or leaving it to later discovery. The information onslaught has its social drawbacks, sure, but my God if we aren't more well-rounded because of it.

And that's just the thing: the Internet and World Wide Web, as we all know, have brought forth a tremendous amount of information. It's up to us, the user, to deal with it -- a major burden ripe for distraction, but a welcome one nonetheless. The power is ours to sort out what is relevant and what is not. We have the final say. However inefficient, it's a supremely democratic (small d!) system.

But when the black flags went up yesterday in protest (Wikipedia blocked almost all of its pages; Google put a prominent note on its homepage; Wired blacked out its headlines), it became clear that the democracy was under fire: the online battle over intellectual property was no longer fought on the fringe and in the shadows, one on one, but right in the center of it all, with lots of collateral damage. (Thankfully, this was only a test.)

I'm not going to discuss the merits and faults of the bills, the intentions versus the language; that much has been done (and done well) by my talented, legally-inclined peers in the publishing industry. What I will talk about is how the protest affected my job. And, like subway maintenance during rush hour, it did in a major way: it impacted my ability to verify facts written by my writers; it hindered my ability to understand information I read elsewhere; it affected my ability to offer ZDNet and SmartPlanet readers the same resource within our articles.

I finished out the workday feeling like my inability to link my original content -- which is protected under these bills, I'll remind you -- to other prominent sources that offer relevant, user-generated, original content or simplified aggregations of it actually reduced the overall value of my content.

My content stops communicating with the rest of the Internet. The informed dialogue within the news cycle slows, or ceases entirely.

And where would we be if the world didn't have any Ryan Gosling memes?

In all seriousness, though, I doubt lawmakers had esteemed publications like ZDNet or Ars in mind when they wrote these bills. But the reality is that both publications are simultaneously protected and targeted under the legislation. Think about it: almost every online publication worth its salt has a comments section. Writers, staff or contributors, aren't perfect. And there are plenty of domains (blogger.com, tumblr.com, flickr.com, youtube.com, et cetera) that are wholly built on unverified user-submitted content that we reference every day.

One court order, however frivolous, and whole ships go down.

The Internet has thrived because it allows an incredible volume of content to communicate with itself. There are, inevitably, going to be a few bad apples in the bunch. An overly broad scope could too easily make the whole bushel rotten.

So let's keep working to figure out technical solutions to this problem, instead of legislating them -- more "report as spam," less "kill switch" -- so I can keep writing, and you can keep commenting, and non-professionals can keep creating, without harboring an irrational fear that a well-meaning screen capture of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey is going to invite Warner Bros. to bring down the entire domain.

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