SOPA Strike! American Censorship Day Makes Internet History

by JoHarrington

On January 18th 2012, over 115,000 websites went dark or censored their content. It was a protest over SOPA and PIPA.

Campaigns have been fought which involve thousands of people. The largest might even muster tens or 100s of thousands.

But what about a world-wide day of action that attracted millions of participants?

It is too soon to speculate how American Censorship Day, on January 18th 2012, will fare in the memories of those who were there.

It certainly made internet history, if only through the sheer numbers involved.

Was This the Biggest Protest in Human History?

Websites are more than single pages. They each represent multiple readers and users of their services.

Wikipedia have released a statement revealing that 162 million hits were recorded on their site.

Each of those people would have been confronted with a darkened page alongside information about SOPA and PIPA. The rest of the site was closed for business.

It was easy to watch previously oblivious Wikipedia users reacting with confusion and outrage to the news. Two different Twitter accounts (@WikiBlackout and @Herpderpedia) were established for the sole purpose of retweeting the comments of those people. It made simultaneously disturbing and highly amusing reading.

Ignorance and self-absorption was there for all to see. Students (some professing to be at college or university) decried the fact that they couldn't finish their essays without the site. Others asked precisely what 'soap' or 'sofa' was and why Wikipedia didn't like it.

An unbelievable number of people simply hadn't consulted the information provided on the blacked out page. They asked when Wikipedia was back and why it was down. Both answers could have been attained had they read the only three sentences there.

This was just one website engaged in activism opposing Stop On-line Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). Many of those being used to spread the message ordinarily serve a massive user base. Each of those cyber-orphans had little to do, but travel around social networking sites passing on the news.

It is impossible to say how many sites were actually involved. Conservative estimates have pinned the figure at around 115,000, but that doesn't include millions of profiles or tiny forums that joined in too. Those people may have only reached a couple of others, but they were still doing their very best.

Know Your Meme's Take on SOPA and PIPA

As part of the ICanHasCheezburger group, Know Your Meme was one of the larger sites joining in the strike.

Spread Awareness with anti-censorship slogans

Poll: Did you do anything to stop SOPA and PIPA?

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One Woman's Contribution to the Internet Strike

Nine separate websites, forums, blogs and profiles had to be sent into protest darkness. Not to mention the social networking profiles.

It took two and a half hours to take my internet presence into the strike. This was not like flicking a switch.

Pages had to be coded appropriately to the various forums upon which they would be displayed. What worked for my websites would not suit my blogs. One size did not fit all.

In addition, there was an entirely separate procedure, which had to take place where I couldn't access the HTML. Content management systems would prove the most time-consuming of all.

That didn't even include the preparation leading up to it. At least another hour could be tagged onto the tally for that.

Deciding to participate in the mass internet action against SOPA and PIPA was not an undertaking to be taken lightly.  My experience was small scale, but it would have touched upon many of the same considerations that people all over the web would have been mulling over.

I am a freelance writer struggling to launch a career. I have spent the past six months working hard to publicize all of these sites and now I was planning to pause them. Nay-sayers warned that I could do irreparable damage to my Google rankings and such. Psychologically, that took a deep breath to see where the conflict between social conscience and livelihood would fall.

There was never really any question. The cause was too important, even if it did feel like I was handing my babies over to the Fates.

Morality decided, the next major issues were how I could achieve internet blackout on January 18th 2012. I have already described my musings on the subject in a previous article. In a nutshell, it required looking at each of my platforms and determining the most efficient and effective ways of censoring each one.

The websites were the easiest to resolve. I did what I suspect 90% of the programmers participating did. I simply recoded my index file, so my homepage was totally redesigned.

The usual homepage was still there, but renamed. This rendered it temporarily invisible. Instead, anyone browsing to either site would find the new protest homepage. No navigation was available, thus making it difficult to find the rest of the site.

I have preserved it in the directory, so that you may view it as it was for American Censorship Day.

Next I tackled my blogs. This was also a relatively simple fix, though it took much trial and error to arrive at that conclusion! 

Both are hosted on Google's Blogspot, which restricted my access to the source code. I could mess with the HTML templates, as many other tech-savvy bloggers did. I even successfully recoded it to display a basic message appropriate to the protest. Unfortunately, I'm not an artist. I couldn't do any of the wonderful fixes that many of my colleagues used; nor would my website coding work in there.

In the end, I took advantage of another option. Many other people involved in the campaign were coming up with very eye-catching designs. Some of them were offering them free for general use.

I merely added a redirect to all of my blog templates. When readers clicked onto any of those links, the meta headings would automatically refresh the page. Their browsers would be taken to another site entirely, where the artwork was featured. In short, it looked exactly like my blogs had been shut down with a legal notice!

The code shown below is precisely what I used. Just a single line initiated the redirect. It's the one which begins 'meta http-equiv', directly under the head tag.

Only one blog escaped being redirected.  My Runescape gaming blog is part of a wider fan-site. I had no access at all to the source code. I was left with two options there. 

The first was to go through every blog entry and render them private view only, while leaving my block notices in the headings. Unfortunately, that meant doctoring over 1000 pages individually, then having to put them all back.

The second was complete temporary obliteration. I disabled the whole blog. Anyone visiting on January 18th 2012 was simply told that they did not have the authorization to view it.  In both the forums and the preceding day's journal, I had warned that this would happen and why. Other bloggers chose to highlight the reasoning too.

As predicted, this simple act was the most widespread of all my removals in this strike. I returned to the forum to find a lot of private messages panicking that Merch Gwyar's Blog was gone forever. I was able to answer them all with awareness raising responses.

When reviewing the sites that went dark, please reserve the greatest respect of all for those dealing with content management sites.

There can be no line of redirection code inserted here; nor are there HTML templates to doctor. The people who tackled these sites would have had to do so with painstaking attention to detail and a lot of preparation.

Banners have to be physically redrawn. Often those with censor lines over their banners and logos have done so with a filter code. On content management sites, the darkness and the censoring has been created by an artist. It's an entirely different banner.

Moreover, everything taken out has to be eventually returned. Nothing is moved without it first being saved on somebody's hard-drive. Forgetting to do so will mean that your site won't look as it did before the strike. The members will have a lot to mourn then!

Finally, each section is a module with its own controls and permissions. Each part that has been disabled has to be noted, so that the administrator remembers to reactivate them later. Give me a page of HTML to write any day over that!

I started working through each of my websites at midnight.  It was nearly half past 2am when the last of them was taken off-line.  That really was small scale. I have spoken with people who were responsible for adding dozens of sites to the protest. We greet each other now with a genuine sense of kudos. We know what the other had to do to achieve that contribution to the strike; and we know that we would all do it again, if necessary.

The only thing to do now is to wait and watch to see if it was enough.

SOPA Books and T-shirts

Get involved with the issues surrounding SOPA, so you can be informed the next time that the internet goes on strike!
SOPA: The Complete BillCurrent Version of SOPA (Stop Online ...No SOPA AND No PIPA T-shirt

In Pictures: The Day the Internet Went on Strike

An estimated 7000 websites participated in the on-line protest on January 18th 2012. This is just a selection of them.
Stop SOPA/PIPA
Stop SOPA/PIPA
Forever Protest
Forever Protest
SOPA Soap Opera
SOPA Soap Opera
Listen to Teddy - Stop SOPA and PIPA
Listen to Teddy - Stop SOPA and PIPA
HTML Protest
HTML Protest
PIPA protests in NYC
PIPA protests in NYC

Poll: Did your favourite site black out or censor its content?

Thousands of websites visibly displayed their dissatisfaction on January 18th 2012. It is possible that you stumbled across one.
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Thank you for voting!

More articles about SOPA and PIPA

Wikipedia, Reddit, Minecraft, Wordpress, Avast and Cheezburger will be blacked out on January 18th 2012. I will also be joining the protest.
After an unprecedented wave of global protest, the two pieces of legislation at the centre of the storm were finally dropped.
Updated: 10/05/2012, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 01/19/2012

Alex - Thank you for reporting back on this. I also saw a fair number of webcomic sites down, including the wonderful xkcd. His stuff is certainly original! Considering that one of the major arguments in support of SOPA/PIPA is that they protect artists, it was quite telling just how many artists disagreed.

WebaliciousGuides - Thank you very much! Especial thanks for signing the petition. My friends and I spent most of last night crying with laughter over the Wikipedia blackout tweets! My friend sent a message in, 'here is a work around for those struggling without Wikipedia'. The link that he sent was a photograph of a library. LOL

WebaliciousGuides on 01/19/2012

This is a good article and it explains the issues well. I would have put a message on my site, but unfortunately I was so busy yesterday! But I did sign an anti-SOPA petition to show my support for the campaign. I noticed the campaign on several websites I visited yesterday (especially Wikipedia and WordPress). It was funny to see the tweets from people complaining they couldn't do their homework etc because of the Wikipedia blackout! If only those people knew how to use the Google cache. But really they shouldn't leave their homework until the last minute in the first place!

Alex Larder on 01/19/2012

Along with the big sites, every webcomic I read yesterday had a huge protest banner and many of the sites were down totally. It was pretty awesome to see that, even people creating totally original content, were opposed to this bill!

JoHarrington on 01/19/2012

Sorry Killer, it would have been a very, very long article if I'd name-checked every site. But my thanks to you and everyone at Newgrounds for all you did on American Censorship Day.

killer vossler on 01/19/2012

You didn't mention Newgrounds!! They took the site completely off. It was just a black page telling you all about the SOPA thing and sending you to the petition.

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