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A funny thing happened on the web yesterday. Many of the most popular sites went dark, either blocking access to their content entirely or making symbolic gestures of protest. Visitors to Wikipedia were directed to contact their Congressional representatives about certain pending legislation, but Wikipedia's actual articles were unavailable. It was in fact the largest online protest in history. And it wasn't just online; people were marching in the streets in New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Seattle.

These stunts were designed to broaden awareness of SOPA and PIPA. Apparently, it worked. I was contacted by a couple of professors here at Xavier who wanted to know what it's all about. They were surprised when they couldn't access Wikipedia.

So, I thought I'd offer this brief primer. SOPA — That's the Student Oral Proficiency Assessment right?

Wrong. SOPA is actually the Stop Online Piracy Act. PIPA is the Protect Intellectual Property Act. SOPA is a bill in the House; PIPA's in the Senate. These measures have support from the entertainment industry but are generally opposed by the internet industry. Think of it as Hollywood versus Silicon Valley. However, this is not just a "Clash of the Titans." The consensus amongst advocates of free speech and the open internet is that SOPA/PIPA are highly problematic.

As writer Brian Barrett explains,

SOPA is an anti-piracy bill working its way through Congress that would grant content creators extraordinary power over the internet which would go almost comedically unchecked to the point of potentially creating an "Internet Blacklist" while exacting a huge cost from nearly every site you use daily and potentially disappearing your entire digital life while still managing to be both unnecessary and ineffective but stands a shockingly good chance of passing unless we do something about it.

That's the case against SOPA in a nutshell. Here's a short video that makes the same case:

For more facts, consider CNET's list of frequently asked questions.

See also: A typically strident statement from The Pirate Bay.

How do things stand after the protests of January 18? According to Forbes, SOPA is "unlikely to recover, at least in its present form." President Obama has all but indicated he'll use his veto power to stop the legislation. An alternative bill, OPEN, has been introduced in the House. Meanwhile, protests continue. With as much as has been invested in this legislation so far, you can bet the fight isn't over. Anyone who uses the internet should be concerned and stay informed.