The Internet has thrived as a free and open information engine. Let's keep it that way.
Web surfers who checked in on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia Wednesday didn't access the usual gusher of information. Instead, they found an ominous message.
"For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia," the managers said.
Wikipedia was not alone in expressing opposition over pending congressional legislation action to regulate the Internet. Google also sent a message of its own, and it was joined by a slew of other high-tech companies that have expressed opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) backed by the entertainment industry.
Backers say the legislation is designed to eliminate and discourage online criminal activity by targeting foreign websites that sell pirated or counterfeit goods. The piracy of intellectual property is a real problem, but critics of the bill counter that its length and breadth would have a strangling effect, imposing huge costs and stifling innovation.
Owing largely to the ignorance of legislators voting on the issue and the deep pockets of those promoting the bill, SOPA was winging its way through the legislative process. A Senate committee already had approved the bill, sending it to the floor for a vote. Bipartisan support for the bill also was present in the House.
That's changed now that the profile of this issue has been raised, and former supporters are backing off.
All Americans ought to be wary of any legislative effort to bring the Internet under government control. This miracle of innovation has been driven by the energy and genius of thousands of people who have made their own contributions. The result is an amazing information superhighway that is growing at warp speed. The idea of having it stifled by government bureaucrats, no matter how well motivated, ought to be an anathema.
SOPA supporters have a just grievance against foreign pirates, but their proposals to force high-tech companies to police foreign websites whose content is user-generated would be a horrific burden.
Once identified, the companies would be required to eliminate problem sites from the Internet phone book. Ousting rogue sites may seem like a sensible idea at first blush. But who decides what's a rogue site and why? The potential for mischief here is virtually unlimited.
From all appearances, this version of SOPA has been stopped — at least for now. That's good because it will give those involved in the issue the time and incentive to see if there's another way to address the piracy problem.