In an unusually blunt statement, Obama administration officials signaled that the White House would not support parts of two bills wending their way through Congress -- the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) that critics say would limit freedom of speech on the Internet and unfairly punish legitimate websites.
"While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet,'' said a statement from Victoria Espinel, intellectual property enforcement coordinator; Aneesh Chopra, U.S. chief technology officer; and Howard Schmidt, cybersecurity coordinator for the national security staff.
The statement is a setback for the major Hollywood studios and unions that have been mounting a lobbying campaign in support of the bills, which would give the Justice Department more tools to shut down foreign websites involved in the piracy of movies and TV shows. Google, Facebook and other tech companies, however, have been fiercely opposed to the bills, particularly provisions that would allow the Justice Department to obtain court orders requiring internet search engines and payment processors to block access to websites involved in piracy.
"We appreciate the Administration's recognition that our ability to innovate, invest, and grow the economy is dependent upon keeping the Internet free and open,'' said Markham Erickson, executive director of the NetCoalition.com, a group of technology companies fighting the anti-piracy bills.
The House Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on the SOPA bill later this month, while the Senate could take up its PIPA anti-piracy bill next month. Both bills are likely to be modified, now, to reflect the administration's concerns.
Piracy, while rampant outside the US, is none the less also a domestic problem, with prosecutions increasing on individuals, companies and rings pirating intellectual property and profiting without sharing funds with the artist, investors or those who have a stake in the song, television show, movie, commercial or art work.
The MPAA disputed the notion that the bills impede freedom of speech or innovation and renewed its support for tougher anti-piracy laws. "Every day, American jobs are threatened by thieves from foreign-based rogue websites,'' the MPAA said in a statement. "This deplorable situation persists because U.S. law enforcement does not have the tools to fight back."
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-- Richard Verrier
Photo: Elsa Pataky, left, and Vin Diesel in "Fast Five," the most pirated movie in 2011. Credit: Universal Pictures