Washington SOPA Opera: Lobbying Power Shifts from Hollywood to Silicon Valley

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Hollywood loves a good yarn about pirates on the high seas. Piracy online? Not so much. Every day, people around the world effectively steal countless movies, songs and other copyrighted content through websites offering illegal downloads. The big movie and music studios have fought this thievery for years, with some success. They hounded Napster out of business. Their high-profile (if unpopular) lawsuits against music downloaders–remorselessly targeting people of all age groups–produced a clear deterrent effect. Major websites like YouTube are quick to take down copyrighted content when asked. But the music and movie industries have struggled to combat overseas-based pirate sites that are mostly beyond the reach of U.S. law. So they have turned to Congress for help, and rallied support for two measures: the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Both would create new legal powers to give American companies–including TIME’s parent company, Time Warner, which supports this legislation–the ability to fight back against these foreign “rogue” sites.

(MORE: How Effective Were the Website Blackout SOPA Protests?)

The problem is that Silicon Valley hates Internet regulation. And its dot-com business leaders, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Google chairman Eric Schmidt, particularly hate these bills. They liken provisions that would block links to pirate website from Google search results to the online censorship of Beijing and Tehran. They say a measure that would force advertisers to cut off their payments to pirate sites is open to abuse and misapplication, and could drive innocent web companies out of business. And they accuse Hollywood of exaggerating the economic harm it’s suffering. In the new print issue, I’ve done a fuller rundown of the arguments the two sides are making about the merits of passing SOPA, PIPA or some variation of the two, which all-access subscribers can read here.

What I didn’t have space to get into is the remarkable political and lobbying story behind this policy standoff. Just a few weeks ago, it looked as though Hollywood was going to get most of what it wanted without much fuss. But the dot-coms came back from the holidays with a vengeance, and have stopped the bills in their tracks for now. In part this is a story about the lobbying clout of a well-established industry meeting the new Washington power of an upstart, but extremely wealthy, rival. Google may only have opened a Washington lobbying office five years ago, but it is catching up fast to a game the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry of America have been playing for decades. (Although it appears that the MPAA may be playing right now with one arm tied behind its back, thanks to lobbying rules that restrain its new chairman, former Senator Chris Dodd. See this amusing account for more.)

(MORE: Ten Prominent Sites That Went Dark Over SOPA and PIPA)

Silicon Valley also has a weapon that is perhaps even more powerful: the ability to shape public opinion in a hurry. Yesterday’s blackout by Wikipedia and related protests by countless other sites drove this issue into the consciousness of millions of Americans who have never picked up a copy of Roll Call in their lives, and wouldn’t otherwise have known or cared about the SOPA fight. Now it looks like a burst of public outrage–Google says that 4.5 million people signed an anti-SOPA petition yesterday–has members of Congress running scared. Whether the studios can regain the political momentum in this fight should reveal just how much, when it comes to the Washington influence game, the balance of power has shifted from Hollywood to Silicon Valley.

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