One early winner in SOPA protest: Wikipedia

A mobile device shows Wikipedia's front page displaying a darkened logo Jan. 18, 2012, in London. Getty Images

Commentary: There's talk that the online protests against the cyber siblings SOPA and PIPA constituted some sort of political coming of age moment for the tech industry. As if the tech moguls had "largely steered clear of lobbying and other political games in Washington" until now. Really? I love the New York Times but c'mon. This is the sort of fairy tale that sounds sweet but fails the smell test.

Silicon Valley has been looking to buy influence in Washington ever since tech companies started making serious money. Witness the sundry battles waged in the last couple of decades over a range of bread and butter issues including Internet tax breaks, the DMCA, or Internet porn laws. And let's not forgot that not-so-insignificant 1998 dustup between the Justice Department and Microsoft over antitrust.

But you could find one coming of age story in the 24-hour online protest: Wikipedia. When he announced that Wikipedia would go dark for a day as part of a planned protest, founder Jimmy Wales made a bet on the political potential of crowdsourcing. He turned out to be right.

A day before turning off the lights, Wales slammed what he described to CNN as a "very badly written" law, a piece of legislation that he likened to one used in China. "I don't think that's the right way the U.S. needs to go in taking a leadership role on the Internet."

And so Wikipedia set out to organize an inchoate movement with no easily-defined leader. A big ambition akin to herding cats. But the early results suggest that Wales made the right gamble. The Wikimedia Foundation disclosed on Thursday that over 8 million U.S. readers looked up their Congressional representatives through Wikipedia. Most of the rest of us suffered in silence. Yes, we managed without access to Wikipedia for a day but it wasn't fun. In fact, it was a big inconvenience for millions of people around the world who have come to rely upon the online dictionary, its gazillions of links and seemingly infinite number of community-curated topics. You could nod sympathetically as one wag tweeted: "Please don't ask me anything until Wikipedia is back up."

Now that it is back up, Wikipedia sent a signal that this might be the start of something bigger - an understandable ambition given its surprising - well, maybe not so surprising - success. "More than 162 million people saw our message asking if you could imagine a world without free knowledge," the organization wrote in a post earlier today. "You said no. You shut down Congress's switchboards. You melted their servers. Your voice was loud and strong. Millions of people have spoken in defense of a free and open Internet."

It obviously wasn't a one-man show. Wikipedia was part of a bigger Internet protest (For example, Google's online petition received 4.5 million signatures.) And the nascent movement could claim immediate results with eight lawmakers withdrawing their support for the bills - including a couple of co-sponsors - Marco Rubio from Florida and Roy Blunt from Missouri. By any measure, it was an extraordinary demonstration of muscle-flexing.

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.

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