Protect IP, SOPA protests knock Senate Web sites offline

An influx of visitors to Senate Web sites during the copyright protest knocked them temporarily offline. But the Capitol switchboard stayed up.

Declan McCullagh
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
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Protect IP sponsor Dianne Feinstein's Web site was overwhelmed by visits.
caption: Protect IP sponsor Dianne Feinstein's Web site was overwhelmed by visitors.

A widespread Internet protest against Hollywood-backed copyright legislation has knocked some U.S. Senate Web sites intermittently offline.

Around 11 a.m. PT today, the rush of visitors looking for ways to contact their members of Congress overwhelmed several Web pages of individual senators. As CNET reported this morning, some sponsors of the Protect IP and the Stop Online Piracy Act have switched sides as a result of the protest.

The amount of traffic "temporarily shut down our Web site," Sen. Ron Wyden, the leading opponent of the Protect IP Act, wrote on Twitter.

By noon PT, the Senate's Web sites were loading again, but slowly or with difficulty. The Web site of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who's a sponsor of Protect IP, was generating a 500 server error.

Other Senate Web pages displayed this message: "Sorry, the web page you have requested is experiencing technical difficulties. The Webmaster has been alerted. You will be automatically redirected to the www.senate.gov home page after 10 seconds."

Wikipedia's English-language pages went completely black last night with a splash page saying "the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet" and suggesting that readers contact members of Congress. The blackout is intended to coincide with next week's Senate floor vote on Protect IP and a committee vote scheduled on the House version, SOPA, next month. (See CNET's FAQ on SOPA and Protect IP.)

It wasn't immediately clear how many Internet users picked up the phone and called their members of Congress, probably the most effective way of pressuring them aside from an in-person visit.

"We've received over 3,000 e-mails on this issue, with more than 2,000 of those in the last 24 hours," a spokeswoman for Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, told CNET today. "I do not have a count of the phone calls easily accessible, but the volume has been significant."

Sen. Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat and another Protect IP sponsor, "received over 440 phone calls relating to SOPA and the Protect IP Act" today, a spokeswoman said.

A source close to Sen. Robert Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who will remain a co-sponsor of Protect IP, said the volume of calls increased today but is not as significant as other high-profile issues.

That's in part due to a decision by Web companies not to urge their users to contact members of Congress directly through the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121, which remained up and functional all day.

Instead, Google is merely asking users to sign a petition, which isn't as effective. Amazon.com isn't even going that far -- it's including an understated home page link to the NetCoalition trade association.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg merely suggested that political leaders should be "pro-Internet," and pointed to his company's position paper. On the other hand, Zuckerberg's post did receive nearly 300,000 "likes" within two hours.

Among the other Web sites that, in one way or another, have joined the blackout: Metafilter, the Consumer Electronics Association, BoingBoing, OpenDNS, WordPress, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Internet's most popular dinosaur comic strip. Some physical protests are also planned.

SOPA represents the latest effort from the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and their allies to counter what they view as rampant piracy on the Internet, especially offshore Web sites. It would allow the Justice Department to obtain an order to be served on search engines, Internet service providers, and other companies, forcing them to make a suspected piratical Web site effectively vanish. It's opposed (PDF) by many Internet companies, users, and civil liberties groups.

In one early sign that the blackouts and protests could get under Hollywood's skin, the MPAA yesterday characterized them as "stunts." The group's chairman, Chris Dodd, took a thinly veiled swipe at Wikipedia by denouncing the protests as "an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on [the sites] for information and [who] use their services." News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter to offer similar thoughts.

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