NEW YORK // Can the world live without Wikipedia for a day? The shutdown of one of the internet's most-visited sites was not sitting well with some of its volunteer editors, who say the protest of anti-piracy legislation could threaten the credibility of their work.
"My main concern is that it puts the organisation in the role of advocacy, and that's a slippery slope," said an editor Robert Lawton, a Michigan computer consultant who would prefer that the encyclopaedia stuck to being a neutral repository of knowledge. "Before we know it, we're blacked out because we want to save the whales."
Wikipedia's English-language site shut down at midnight Eastern Standard Time on Tuesday and the organisation said it would stay down for 24 hours.
Instead of encyclopaedia articles, visitors to the site saw a stark black-and-white page with the message: "Imagine a world without free knowledge." It carried a link to information about the two congressional bills and details about how to reach legislators.
It is the first time the English site has been blacked out. Wikipedia's Italian site came down once briefly in protest to an internet censorship bill put forward by the Berlusconi government. The bill did not advance.
The shutdown adds to a growing body of critics who are speaking out against the legislation. But some editors are so uneasy with the move that they have blacked out their own user profile pages or resigned their administrative rights on the site to protest. Some likened the site's decision to fighting censorship with censorship.
One of the site's own "five pillars" of conduct says that Wikipedia "is written from a neutral point of view". The site strives to "avoid advocacy, and we characterise information and issues rather than debate them".
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales argues that the site can maintain neutrality in content even as it takes public positions on issues.
"The encyclopaedia will always be neutral. The community need not be, not when the encyclopaedia is threatened," he tweeted.
The Wikimedia Foundation, which administers the site, announced the blackout late on Monday, after polling its community of volunteer contributors and editors and getting responses from 1,800 of them.
The protest is aimed at the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Protect Intellectual Property Act under consideration in the Senate.
"If passed, this legislation will harm the free and open internet and bring about new tools for censorship of international websites inside the United States," the foundation said.
Both bills are designed to crack down on sales of pirated American products overseas, and they have the support of the film and music industry. Among the opponents are many internet companies such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, eBay and AOL. They say the bills would hurt the industry and infringe on free-speech rights.
Dick Costollo, the CEO of Twitter, said he opposes the legislation as well, but shutting down the service was out of the question.
"Closing a global business in reaction to single-issue national politics is foolish," Mr Costollo tweeted.
Since Wikimedia depends on a small army of volunteers who create and update articles, it is particularly concerned about a lack of exemptions in the bills for sites where users might contribute copyrighted content.
Today, it has no obligation under US law except removing that content if a copyright holder complains. But under the House version of the bill, it could be shut down unless it polices its own pages.
The White House raised concerns over the weekend, pledging to work with Congress to battle piracy and counterfeiting while defending free expression, privacy and innovation in the internet. The administration signalled it might use its veto power, if necessary.
Wikipedia has seen a small decline in participation, from a peak of 100,000 active editors a year ago to about 90,000 now. Wikimedia Foundation blames this mainly on outdated editing tools, and believes it can get the number growing again with software upgrades.