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Showbiz, Web draw battle lines on SOPA

Wikipedia joins other dotcoms for Wednesday protest

The showbiz tech battle escalated Monday, as Wikipedia vowed to join Wednesday’s Internet blackout, and studio chiefs fretted that opponents of their anti-piracy legislation are gaining ground in the war of perception.

Tensions heated up after a statement from the White House on Saturday criticized parts of the Hollywood-backed anti-piracy legislation that is wending its way through Congress.

There are two anti-piracy bills being negotiated, and backers say they are clearly worded to target “rogue” sites overseas, to cut off support or traffic from search engines, ad networks and payment processors. However, opponents of the bills — including dozens of Internet companies ranging from Google and Reddit to Boing Boing and now Wikipedia, as announced Monday by founder Jimmy Wales — are framing it as a First Amendment issue. And the White House seems to have given momentum to this argument.

Studio chiefs are rankled that the Obama administration took aim at a key provision of the legis-lation, by which domain names of sites devoted to infringement could be blocked. Even more aggravating for the execs is that the administration said it would not support a bill that “reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.”

“We were disappointed that they used some of the buzzwords of the opposition, like ‘censorship,’??” said Michael O’Leary, the MPAA’s senior exec VP for global policy and external affairs. “Words have meaning, and you should not just adopt the rhetoric of the opposition. It is not constructive and it is not moving the ball forward.”

O’Leary added that it was “beyond the pale” to suggest that the movie business — which he said “was built on (advocacy of) the First Amendment” — would support a bill that would pose a threat to freedom of speech. Asked how studios have reacted to the White House statement, O’Leary said simply, “They are not happy with it.”

Despite administration calls for legislation this year, the White House statement seemed to indicate that President Obama would not sign legislation without some kind of consensus from both Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

With Wikipedia’s Wales announcing that the site will go dark Wednesday to protest the legislation, Internet companies continue to build momentum in their efforts to draw a line in the sand against the two anti-piracy bills.

But showbiz lobbyists call such actions publicity stunts, or another variation in a campaign to purposely mischaracterize the narrowly tailored legislation as a threat to Web freedom.

Studios, record labels and unions had been underscoring their message that the anti-piracy legislation was needed to protect and create jobs — the entertainment industry launched Creative America, an org aimed to drum up popular support — but in recent weeks that position has been obscured as opponents raised alarms about the bills’ potential impact on freedom of speech.

The legislation is aimed at curbing so-called “rogue” sites overseas, by cutting off support or traffic from search engines, ad networks and payment processors. Backers say the legislation is so narrowly crafted that it is clear that only those sites devoted to infringing activity would be adversely affected. For instance, the House version defines a foreign “rogue” site as one “primarily designed or operated for the purpose of” offering infringing goods, and one that otherwise would be seized under existing law if it operated in the U.S.

While the administration has called for both sides to broker a compromise, the tension shows little sign of subsiding. Revisions to the legislation are not yet in the offing. As of yet, there is no meeting scheduled to bridge the divisions. Instead, O’Leary suggested that White House officials should have a role in telling opponents to “stop their gimmicks and stop their games.”

“We are interested in getting something done,” O’Leary said. “From this point moving forward, we are going to judge people on their actions, not their words.”

Critics of the White House said that in issuing a statement, officials merely made a calculation that they would get less blowback from the showbiz community than they would from the tech sector.

The next few weeks will be telling, especially as Obama looks to raise additional money for re-election. VP Joseph Biden is scheduled to visit Los Angeles on Friday for fund-raisers and other appearances, and first lady Michelle Obama will raise money in Hollywood circles Jan. 31. Obama himself is expected in town sometime in the next month or so.

Copyright issues traditionally have taken a backseat to other concerns in the minds of Hollywood donors, but the publicity that the legislation has generated could alter those dynamics.

Over the weekend, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes featured a debate on the issue with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and NBC Universal general counsel Rick Cotton. Republican candidates have been queried about the issue on the campaign trail — with Ron Paul against the legislation and Rick Santorum seemingly for it.

The bipartisan nature of the support and the opposition has posed problems for leaders in both parties. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on “Meet the Press” that he still planned to move forward with the legislation, but he, too, said that Google and Facebook have raised legitimate concerns. “We need this (to be) a winner for everyone, not just the content people,” said Reid.

In a series of irate tweets over the weekend, Rupert Murdoch offered what is probably the most public showbiz response, including his message of “universal anger” at President Obama “from all sorts of normal supporters.”

While attending the Golden Globe ceremonies on Sunday, Time Warner chairman Jeff Bewkes said, “You end up in this weird argument where people say that anything that goes near the Internet can never have the same rules applied to it.”

Bewkes didn’t single out any company — unlike Murdoch, who took aim squarely at Google — but said that the First Amendment argument has led to a situation where “major companies (are) masquerading behind free speech claims to protect illegitimate businesses.”

A Google spokeswoman pushed back against Murdoch’s tweets, saying that the company has taken down 5 million infringing Web pages from its search results and invested $60 million “in the fight against bad ads.”

“Like many other tech companies, we believe that there are smart, targeted ways to shut down foreign rogue websites without asking U.S. companies to censor the Internet,” she said.

If anything, the jockeying over the legislation has been a lesson for Hollywood that it needs to better sell its message, particularly as it watches the mobilization taking place online, according to one industry rep.

On Monday, some industry figures wondered what the response would be if the networks and cable channels shut down for the day. Wikipedia’s action, for all the publicity it may generating, hasn’t seen the tech community fall into step unanimously.

Asked by a Radar correspondent whether Twitter would join the protest, Twitter’s Dick Costolo tweeted, “That’s just silly. Closing a global business in reaction to single-issue national politics is foolish.”

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)

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