Critics of the Stop Online Piracy Act, you just might have a new ally: The President of the United States.
The White House responded to a pair of online petitions today, expressing support for anti-piracy legislation but outright refusing to back the anti-piracy measures as outlines in the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act.
"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," the White House said in a letter signed by three officials involved in budget, technology and cybersecurity.
The letter supports the idea of anti-piracy legislation but specifies that such legislation now being considered by Congress in the forms of SOPA and PIPA must be directed at foreign pirate sites, allow for due process, permit freedom of expression, not stifle the Internet or business start-ups and should not interfere with the Domain Name System that enables the web to work together. (The DNS-blocking provision was tentatively stripped from SOPA this past week.)
The SOPA and PIPA bills, as currently written, would empower the United States to force search engines to blacklist sites accused by private companies of blocking their copyrights. It would also require "U.S.-directed" sites, a category that include domestic sites, to be cut off from online payment providers and ad networks if copyright holders could convince a court that those sites were infringing on copyrights. It would also make the streaming of video online that contains copyrighted material a violation of copyright.
Altogether, media companies such as Viacom and Time Warner have argued that these measures would help stamp out online piracy. But critics, including YouTube, Reddit and an increasingly vocal community of web users, have said that the combined measures would chill speech and threaten to put the likes of YouTube and Reddit out of business. They've raised the specter that even posting a LOLCat image on a message board, if said LOLCat image was copyrighted, could trigger an action to delist the site hosting that message board and cut off its income.
Numerous video game companies have protested the legislation, saying it threatens their businesses. They said it could stifle or even obliterate such things as message boards and online streaming services. The gaming industry's top trade grop, the Entertainment Software Association, has lobbied in support of the bills.
The full SOPA letter that is also posted on the White House's website, appears below [emphasis in the original]:
COMBATING ONLINE PIRACY WHILE PROTECTING AN OPEN AND INNOVATIVE INTERNET
By Victoria Espinel, Aneesh Chopra, and Howard Schmidt
Thanks for taking the time to sign this petition. Both your words and actions illustrate the importance of maintaining an open and democratic Internet.
Right now, Congress is debating a few pieces of legislation concerning the very real issue of online piracy, including the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the PROTECT IP Act, and the Online Protection and Digital ENforcement Act (OPEN). We want to take this opportunity to tell you what the Administration will support-and what we will not support. Any effective legislation should reflect a wide range of stakeholders, including everyone from content creators to the engineers that build and maintain the infrastructure of the Internet.
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.
Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small. Across the globe, the openness of the Internet is increasingly central to innovation in business, government, and society and it must be protected. To minimize this risk, new legislation must be narrowly targeted only at sites beyond the reach of current U.S. law, cover activity clearly prohibited under existing U.S. laws, and be effectively tailored, with strong due process and focused on criminal activity. Any provision covering Internet intermediaries such as online advertising networks, payment processors, or search engines must be transparent and designed to prevent overly broad private rights of action that could encourage unjustified litigation that could discourage startup businesses and innovative firms from growing.
We must avoid creating new cybersecurity risks or disrupting the underlying architecture of the Internet. Proposed laws must not tamper with the technical architecture of the Internet through manipulation of the Domain Name System (DNS), a foundation of Internet security. Our analysis of the DNS filtering provisions in some proposed legislation suggests that they pose a real risk to cybersecurity and yet leave contraband goods and services accessible online. We must avoid legislation that drives users to dangerous, unreliable DNS servers and puts next-generation security policies, such as the deployment of DNSSEC, at risk.
Let us be clear-online piracy is a real problem that harms the American economy, threatens jobs for significant numbers of middle class workers and hurts some of our nation's most creative and innovative companies and entrepreneurs. It harms everyone from struggling artists to production crews, and from startup social media companies to large movie studios. While we are strongly committed to the vigorous enforcement of intellectual property rights, existing tools are not strong enough to root out the worst online pirates beyond our borders. That is why the Administration calls on all sides to work together to pass sound legislation this year that provides prosecutors and rights holders new legal tools to combat online piracy originating beyond U.S. borders while staying true to the principles outlined above in this response. We should never let criminals hide behind a hollow embrace of legitimate American values.
This is not just a matter for legislation. We expect and encourage all private parties, including both content creators and Internet platform providers working together, to adopt voluntary measures and best practices to reduce online piracy.
So, rather than just look at how legislation can be stopped, ask yourself: Where do we go from here? Don't limit your opinion to what's the wrong thing to do, ask yourself what's right. Already, many members of Congress are asking for public input around the issue. We are paying close attention to those opportunities, as well as to public input to the Administration. The organizer of this petition and a random sample of the signers will be invited to a conference call to discuss this issue further with Administration officials and soon after that, we will host an online event to get more input and answer your questions. Details on that will follow in the coming days.
Washington needs to hear your best ideas about how to clamp down on rogue websites and other criminals who make money off the creative efforts of American artists and rights holders. We should all be committed to working with all interested constituencies to develop new legal tools to protect global intellectual property rights without jeopardizing the openness of the Internet. Our hope is that you will bring enthusiasm and know-how to this important challenge.
Moving forward, we will continue to work with Congress on a bipartisan basis on legislation that provides new tools needed in the global fight against piracy and counterfeiting, while vigorously defending an open Internet based on the values of free expression, privacy, security and innovation. Again, thank you for taking the time to participate in this important process. We hope you'll continue to be part of it.
Victoria Espinel is Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator at Office of Management and Budget
Aneesh Chopra is the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and Assistant to the President and Associate Director for Technology at the Office of Science and Technology Policy
Howard Schmidt is Special Assistant to the President and Cybersecurity Coordinator for National Security Staff
The House of Representatives is scheduled to debate SOPA on Wednesday, January 18. On that same day, some websites, including Reddit, are planning to go dark to raise awareness about the perceived harms of the legislation.
The White House letter, while not a veto threat, increases the odds that SOPA and PIPA, if reconciled, passed and sent to the President's desk, just might not be able to be the law of the land without significant changes.
(Top photo: Brendan Smialkowski | Getty Images)