A controversial online piracy bill could force President Obama to choose between two of his most important allies: Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
Obama hasn’t taken a position yet on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that has divided senior lawmakers in both parties, but that will have to change if it clears Congress.
If Obama signs the bill, he will dash the hopes of Silicon Valley executives who donated heavily to his 2008 campaign and are vehemently opposed to the anti-piracy measure.
But the entertainment industry would see a veto as a betrayal by the administration on its most significant priority.
SOPA would empower the Justice Department and copyright holders to demand that search engines, Internet providers and payment processors cut off access to sites “dedicated” to copyright infringement.
The legislation is aimed at blocking foreign sites such as The Pirate Bay that offer illegal copies of movies, music and television shows with impunity.
Movie studios, record labels and business groups say the law is necessary to crack down on online copyright infringement, which is hurting businesses and destroying jobs.
But consumer groups and major Web companies, including Google, Yahoo and Facebook, warn SOPA would stifle innovation. They say the legislation would impose an unreasonable burden on websites to police user-generated content and could lead to legitimate websites getting shut down.
Although Hollywood and Silicon Valley are engaged in an all-out lobbying war over SOPA, they are also two of President Obama’s most important bases of support.
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, who just last month warned that SOPA would “criminalize linking and the fundamental structure of the Internet itself,” campaigned for Obama in 2008 and has already donated the maximum amount to his reelection campaign.
Employees of computer and Internet companies have donated a total of $1.3 million to Obama’s 2012 campaign, one of the highest figures for any industry, according to an analysis of campaign finance data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Obama has made Silicon Valley a frequent stop on recent West Coast swings. In a September visit to California, he held fundraisers at the homes of former Symantec CEO John Thompson and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.
Obama credited tech-industry donors with helping him win the White House and implored them to work for his reelection.
“So I expect all of you, again, not just to be supporting me; you have to be out there, active, engaged — just as engaged as you were in 2008,” Obama said at Thompson’s house in San Jose, Calif.
The president is also close with the entertainment industry.
Employees of television, movie and music companies have donated more than $1 million to Obama’s reelection campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
He also makes time for fundraisers in Los Angeles, some of them attended by A-list Hollywood stars, from Tom Hanks to Eva Longoria.
Vice President Biden, who served on the Senate Judiciary Committee and has long advocated for tough intellectual-property protections, is close with former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), now the head of Hollywood’s trade group, the Motion Picture Association of America.
“Look, piracy is outright theft,” Biden told Variety last year. “People are out there blatantly stealing from Americans — stealing their ideas and robbing us of America’s creative energies. There’s no reason why we should treat intellectual property any different than tangible property.”
“Joe believes it passionately and understands it intellectually. The marriage of those two doesn’t always happen in this town,” Dodd told Variety.
Congress is expected to move forward with SOPA when it returns from its recess.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), SOPA’s sponsor, plans to bring the bill to a vote in his committee this month.
The Senate is expected to vote on its version of the bill, the Protect IP Act, which has already cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, by the end of the month.
It is difficult to handicap where the administration will come down on the issue. While the administration has made copyright protection a priority by launching a public education campaign against illegal downloading and seizing hundreds of allegedly infringing websites, it also has sought to help grow innovative companies seen as bright spots in the future U.S. economy.
An administration spokeswoman said the president’s chief adviser on intellectual property issues, Victoria Espinel, is reviewing the legislation. She has met with tech companies, unions, copyright holders, consumer advocacy groups, progressive groups and Internet freedom advocates, according to the spokeswoman.
Other Democratic constituencies are involved in the fight. Labor unions back the movie studios, while Internet freedom advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Knowledge are lobbying against it.
But Hollywood and Silicon Valley are unique for their combination of zeal on the issue and their clout in Washington. It will be a difficult decision for Obama to disappoint either side.