Can you imagine a world without Google or Facebook? If plans to protest the potential passing of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) come to fruition, you won’t need to; those sites, along with many other well-known online destinations, will go temporarily offline as a taste of what we could expect from a post-SOPA Internet.
Companies including Google, Facebook, Twitter, PayPal, Yahoo! and Wikipedia are said to be discussing a coordinated blackout of services to demonstrate the potential effect SOPA would have on the Internet, something already being called a “nuclear option” of protesting. The rumors surrounding the potential blackout were only strengthened by Markham Erickson, executive director of trade association NetCoalition, who told FoxNews that “a number of companies have had discussions about [blacking out services]” last week.
According to Erickson, the companies are well aware of how serious an act such a blackout would be:
This type of thing doesn’t happen because companies typically don’t want to put their users in that position. The difference is that these bills so fundamentally change the way the Internet works. People need to understand the effect this special-interest legislation will have on those who use the Internet.
The idea of an Internet blackout should seem familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the debate so far. In addition to a blackout already carried out by Mozilla, hacking group Anonymous proposed the same thing a couple of weeks ago, suggesting that sites replace their front pages with a statement protesting SOPA. That suggestion itself came a week after Jimmy Wales had asked Wikipedia users about the possibility of blacking out that site in protest of the bill.
As a way of drawing attention to the topic, it’s something that will definitely work. Just Google alone going dark would cause havoc online, but the idea of it happening at the same time as Facebook, Twitter et al. follow suit seems almost unimaginable.
The question then becomes how to translate the inevitable confusion and outrage from those who don’t know what SOPA is into activism. The key, I assume, lies in the execution of the blackout: Will the sites that voluntarily go down be entirely unavailable or will they follow the Anonymous-proposed model of replacing the front page with a statement explaining what is going on, why and how users can best become involved in the discussion? If the sites do go entirely dark, is the hope that the resulting outrage will be enough to fuel news stories about the reason behind the decision? And that users will not transfer their frustration to the sites themselves, as opposed to the bill they’re protesting?
The fact that Facebook and Twitter are both said to be considering taking part in the blackout is simultaneously heartening and worrying. The former because, well, they’re standing up for what they collectively believe in — and that’s a good thing. But the latter because the lack of availability for social media on the proposed blackout day feels like it’s giving up the best chance to harness the frustration and energy people will feel about the temporary loss of the Internet as they know it, and a great possibility to focus and direct that energy into productive activism against SOPA. Then again, it may take losing Facebook and Twitter to really drive home how dramatically SOPA could affect the Internet.
All of this may come to nothing, of course. The companies may decide not to black out their sites and find other ways to protest SOPA. That could be for the best; collectively closing down the most trafficked sites on the Internet to prove a point will certainly garner a lot of attention, but the effects it’ll have beyond that (and the reactions it’ll cause as a result) are difficult to predict and could easily end up causing a backlash against the sites responsible at a time when they least want it. But still … just try to imagine an Internet without Google, Facebook or Yahoo. Even for a day. Almost makes you want it to happen, just to make people realize how reliant we are on the Internet as we know it now, doesn’t it?
Disclosure: Time Inc. parent company Time Warner supports SOPA legislation.
Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.