Wikipedia is planning an online “blackout” on Wednesday, in protest against proposed US legislation intended to stem web piracy.

The free, user-written encyclopaedia is one of the world’s top five most popular websites, receiving tens of millions of visitors to its English edition daily.

Along with many internet companies, Wikipedia is concerned that the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) will hold website owners liable for links to sources of illegal music and movie downloading, with a detrimental effect on free speech online.

“The emerging consensus of the community seems to be for a global blackout of English Wikipedia,” Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, said on Twitter on Monday afternoon. “Final details [are] under consideration but consensus seems to be for ‘full’ rather than ‘soft’ blackout… This is going to be wow.”

Wikipedians have been considering the radical measure for several weeks, alongside other sites such as Reddit. This weekend’s statement from the White House, which appeared to side with Silicon Valley – prompting criticism from media owners including News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch – has failed to dissuade them of the need for a blackout, making it a controversial decision among some users and editors.

Mr Wales said the moves in Washington could be a “tactic”.

“Rumors of the death of SOPA may be premature,” he said on Twitter. “We have no indication that SOPA is fully off the table. PIPA is still alive and kicking. We need to send Washington a BIG message… Full steam ahead!”

Instead of its usual collection of millions of articles, Wikipedia will for 24 hours be given over to a single letter from its community members, explaining their opposition to the legislation and “a call to action” to telephone and write to US Congress.

“I hope Wikipedia will melt phone systems in Washington on Wednesday,” Mr Wales said, suggesting that up to 100m people could see the anti-SOPA message posted from midnight Eastern Standard Time (5am Greenwich Mean Time) on January 18.

Globally, the online encyclopedia has over 20m articles across 270 different languages, receiving almost half a billion visitors every month. It is run as a not-for-profit organisation.

Mr Wales cited estimates from Comscore that the English-language version of Wikipedia – which is still its largest – receives 25m visitors everyday. “Generally speaking in any particular country we are larger than the largest newspaper,” he said at a presentation last week.

Although the blackout will be only on the English Wikipedia, the German site is expected to run a protest banner, with other languages likely to follow suit.

My FT colleague David Gelles spells out the dividing lines on SOPA and PIPA:

Content creators like News Corp and NBC Universal say new laws would provide essential checks for the internet where illicit versions of their content circulate freely. The new legislation, which they support, would cut off payment and advertising networks from foreign sites dedicated to piracy, and make internet companies accountable for hosting and linking to websites offering illicit downloads of movies, TV shows and music.

Technology companies, however, contend that such measures would stifle innovation, and hold companies such as Google and Facebook liable for links and content that they cannot easily control. A common claim is that the two proposed laws would “break the internet”.

Read the rest of David’s analysis of the SOPA debate here.

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