The White House on Saturday made clear that it will oppose any legislation to crack down on digital theft and counterfeiting that would diminish the openness 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,” said a statement posted by the Obama administration’s top technology officials.
“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,” the statement said.
The posting by Victoria Espinel, intellectual property enforcement coordinator at the Office of Management and Budget; Aneesh Chopra, chief U.S. technology officer; and Howard Schmidt, cybersecurity coordinator for the White House national security team, was a response to online petitions urging the president to block any efforts by Congress to regulate the Internet.
One petition posted on the White House “We the People” website just before Christmas has garnered more than 51,000 signatures in the past three weeks. It urges Obama to veto any bills, including the Stop Online Piracy Act moving through the House, “that threaten to diminish the free flow of information.”
Both SOPA and a bill approved last spring by a Senate committee will be front and center in Congress when lawmakers return from recess next week.
House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, plans to continue a markup of SOPA that began in December with two days of debate on dozens of amendments. SOPA proposes to limit access to websites that offer pirated movies or music or that sell counterfeit goods. Smith issued a statement on Saturday welcoming the administration's position paper. "I agree with the White House that any legislation to combat online piracy should not harm the Internet or slow innovation," he said.
House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., had planned a hearing next week on how SOPA could affect innovation and cybersecurity, but Issa announced on Saturday morning that the hearing will be postponed. "Majority Leader [Eric] Cantor has assured me that we will continue to work to address outstanding concerns and work to build consensus prior to any anti-piracy legislation coming before the House for a vote," Issa said. "The voice of the Internet community has been heard. Much more education for Members of Congress about the workings of the Internet is essential if anti-piracy legislation is to be workable and achieve broad appeal."
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has scheduled a vote for Jan. 24 on a motion to begin debate on anti-piracy legislation that was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee in May but has been blocked from floor action by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., over concerns about infringements on free speech and innovation.
The bills have generated a fierce debate both online and in the business world about balancing openness on the Internet with the need to protect both cybersecurity and intellectual property rights.
This week, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue pledged to work with all sides in the debate to broker a compromise.
“We knew this would be a difficult issue,” Donohue said at a news conference on Thursday. “We believe that there are serious objections and legitimate ones that have been raised by some of our friends in the Internet business and we’re working very, very hard to get those resolved.”
In the online statement on Saturday, the White House technology team said the issues are not just matters for Congress to address through 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,” the statement said.
In order to minimize the risks to innovation and openness, the White House officials said, “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.”