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Anti-censorship protests irk some Web surfers

Pop-ups are one thing, but blacked-out content on Tumblr causes annoyances for some users.

This is an example of the anti-SOPA pop-up banners that Web sites were displaying today.
This is an example of the anti-SOPA pop-up banners that Web sites were displaying today.

Web sites opposed to a federal anti-piracy bill were coming up with some innovative ways of protesting the proposed law, which they claim would allow for Internet censorship. But the protests were interfering with some Web surfers.

In honor of "American Censorship Day," some Web sites were symbolically blacking out their front pages today. The big pop-ups with a darkened background urge people to contact Congress and express opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The House of Representatives held its first hearing on the controversial bill today.

Hollywood studios, the recording industry, large content holders and the U.S.Copyright Office back the measure, arguing that it is needed to curb online piracy. The measure would allow the Justice Department to serve court orders on ISPs, domain name system (DNS) providers, and search engines and ask them to cut off foreign "rogue" Web sites accused of infringing copyrighted material.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, and other Internet companies oppose the measure, arguing that SOPA would force changes to the DNS and effectively create a blacklist of domains suspected of intellectual property violations, among other complaints.

To educate Web surfers and get them to contact Congress in opposition of the bill, many sites were featuring the pop-up protest banners. "American Censorship Day. Website Blocked," said one banner, found on the site of TechDirt. "This site has been blocked to Americans by the US Government Firewall."

"Sound Scary?" the banner says. "Today, Congress holds a hearing on a bill that wold create America's first system for internet censorship. Stand with us to stop it." Then there is a button that says "Write Congress."

Another version of the protest banner, seen on the site, includes a sample message to Congress along with spaces for visitors to type in their name, e-mail address and contact information to send an electronic letter to Congress.

In general, Web surfers didn't seem to mind. "Great how so many websites and search engines are displaying anti-#SOPA banners and links. Sanity FTW," was a tweet by Jumile.

But at least one Web site had to pull the protest banner because some people couldn't close it.

"Apologies to those who experienced problems with the anti-SOPA popup on @boingboing. Problem should be resolved now. We had to yank it," blogger Xeni Jardin tweeted. "Sadly, had to kill it, some users weren't able to close the popup. :-("

Meanwhile, Tumblr's protest was even more potent. The site blacked out content in members' dashboards and included a link for people to enter their contact information so they could ultimately call their U.S.Representative. As a result, Tumblr users were averaging 3.6 calls per second, according to a Tweet from the Tumblr account.

"Millions upon millions of users will doubtless run into these blocks of censored text without any idea as to what is going on. They'll be angry and frustrated . And many of them will channel that anger ... toward their representatives," Jason Kincaid wrote on TechCrunch. "It's a bold move, and it's one that could have a major impact." The Tumblr move was praised by most of the commenters on the TechCrunch article, but a few complained. "I appreciate the sentiment and stand with the cause but what they did is SUPER annoying," wrote one reader. "I just want to read my Tumblr and I have to figure out how to get the text to show up."

This isn't the first time Web sites have "gone dark" in protest. In February 1996, many sites turned their background color to black in opposition to the Communications Decency Act (CDA), an anti-pornography measure that was part of the Telecommunications Act passed that year. The CDA was later struck down by the Supreme Court.