This is what happens when you make the Internet mad.
On Wednesday, a group of technology companies began an unusual form of protest: The firms shut down or replaced the content on their own popular Web sites with protest messages to show their unhappiness with two Internet-regulation bills grinding through Congress. They argue that the bills would impose huge regulatory costs and stifle innovation on the Web.
Around the country, Americans woke up without some of the oddball essentials of online life. No Wikipedia. No Reddit, a compendium of links to stories and funny pictures that draws millions a day. And no I Can Has Cheezburger?, the world’s best-known collection of funny cat pictures.
In Washington, however, Wednesday has another significance.
It culminates a surprising lobbying effort in which technology companies such as Twitter, Wikipedia and Google have used their massive reach into Americans’ daily lives as a political weapon, to whip up support from online users.
In this fight, they were pitted against traditional Washington heavyweights, such as Hollywood and the recording industry.
And even before the LOLcats went on strike, it seemed as though the tech companies were winning.
This fight is over two similar bills: the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act and the Senate’s Protect IP (intellectual property) Act. Both are meant to attack the problem of foreign Web sites that sell pirated or counterfeit goods. They would impose restrictions forcing U.S. companies to stop selling online ads to suspected pirates, processing payments for illegal online sales and refusing to list Web sites suspected of piracy in search-engine results.
The idea is to cut off the channels that deliver American customers, and their money, to potential pirates. But tech companies see the laws as a dangerous overreach, objecting because, they say, the laws would add burdensome costs and new rules that would destroy the freewheeling soul of the Internet.
“The voice of the Internet community has been heard,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who sided with the tech companies, said in a statement. Issa said he had already been told of a victory: GOP leaders told him that the House would not vote on a version of the bill that those companies oppose. “Much more education for Members of Congress about the workings of the Internet is essential.”
The biggest impact of Wednesday’s blackout may be in the shutdown of the English-language version of Wikipedia, which gets 2.7 billion U.S. visitors per month.
“It is the opinion of the English Wikipedia community that both of these bills, if passed, would be devastating to the free and open web,” said a statement signed by three of the free encyclopedia’s administrators, with the handles “NuclearWarfare,” “Risker” and “Billinghurst.” They said the decision to shut down the English-language portion of the site, starting at midnight Eastern time, had been made after a virtual discussion that involved 1,800 users.