As millions of students have already realized, Wikipedia is down today (January 18, 2012).  Did Wikipedia forget to pay their electric bill?

Nope, nothing like that.  Wikipedia and other big (and small) sites are participating in a blackout to protest SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act).  When the calendar flips to Thursday, Wikipedia will once again be live.

The intent of SOPA, sponsored by Texas congressman Lamar Smith, is to aid law enforcement agencies in their fight against intellectual property violations.  That sounds like a great thing, right?

The problem is that the government could shut down sites that are allegedly violating intellectual property laws without significant due  process.  SOPA would make also make a rights holder who falsely accused a site liable for damages.  However, under SOPA, it’s quite likely that rights holders would try to press the issue and attempt to force law enforcement agencies to grant them protection that exceeds what they are actually legally entitled to.  I think this because there already a lot of example of rights holders trying to expand the reach of their protections (no, I’m not talking about illegal downloads).

What SOPA would essentially do is turn the internet into a “shoot first and ask questions later” landscape.  Sites that operate without the boundaries of the law could get shut down while an investigation take place.  Whole sites could be taken down even if there were only a single case of copyright infringement – even if the site’s owner did not approve of then infringing content.  If a visitor to this site were to leave a long comment that they stole, lock, stock, and barrel, from someone else, I wouldn’t necessarily know this.  I could honestly believe that they had themselves written the content.

I do believe that intellectual property rights should be protected.  However, I also believe that due process should be allowed to run its course and that law enforcement doesn’t rush to judgment simply because a rights holder says that a site violates intellectual property laws.  There should be a balance between intellectual property rights and the first amendment.