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Tomorrow, for a whole 24 hours, the English Wikipedia site, alongside Reddit and other high traffic life influencing websites, are to be going offline in protest of the SOPA legislation trying to make its way through the American legal system as we speak. SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, will most likely seriously infringe the limitless freedom that we currently enjoy as we surf to our hearts’ content and definitely infringe on American civil liberties. This is undisputed as far as I am concerned. What is troubling me about this is the dangerous precedent being set by Jimmy Wales. Do we really want our most often used educational and recreational escapes wading into the political melee on a regular basis?
Don’t get me wrong, I admire that the third largest website in the world is willing to pin its colours to the mast so boldly and to speak up for the common internet geek like myself that have no voice in Capitol Hill, but we cannot ignore the potential ramifications of websites we have come to rely on on an hourly basis being able to strike and drastically alter our lives; especially the lives of students who consume Wikipedia pages as if they were Starmix.
All day I have been talking to people about the imminent suspension: at first I thought nothing of it but the more people voiced concern the more I realised I used Wikipedia. It’s only 3 o’clock and my browsing history tells me I’ve accessed 45 different articles from Robert Boyle to Co-ordinated Universal Time. Put simply, many people across the world live and breathe Wikipedia and other sites like it. They are an amenity that the youth of today simply cannot do without.
My concern then stems from the freedom with which sites can suspend service. They are not constrained by their management, trade unions or even national governments. As distressing as it is hypothetical, if Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google fame wanted to close down Google for a while in protest of some kind of new super-tax imposition from the U.S. Government then they would be seemingly unable to be prevented from doing so.
The other side of the coin of course is that websites are the new bastions of power for the 21stcentury: uncheckable, unbuyable bodies that can do what they want in the face of injustices. I fully support the Wikipedia blackout, despite its severe ramifications for those of us struggling to meet deadlines without it in our lives for a day. My real concern is in the hands of other, less scrupulous website owners might now be able to wield this precedent for their own ends. Or maybe Wiki-withdrawal has me paranoid.