Franken, Klobuchar in tough spot on Internet piracy bill

Wikipedia's protest screen
Wikipedia's protest screen.
Screen grab via Wikipedia

Hollywood appears to have lost a fight in Congress over two bills supported by the entertainment industry that would have tightened penalties for online piracy.

A planned vote next week in the Senate has been canceled and the House bill has also been put on ice. Minnesota's eight U.S. House members came out against those bills this week after thousands of websites went dark in protest. But the state's two Senators backed the bills even though it sometimes put them in a difficult political position.

The proposed legislation would have given the Department of Justice the power to shut down websites accused of intentional copyright infringement and would bar search engines such as Google from linking to those sites. Google and other tech companies argued that those restrictions were technically difficult to implement and would disrupt the innovative nature of the Internet.

When MPR Midday host Gary Eichten asked Sen. Al Franken last week about his support for the Protect Intellectual Property Act, known as PIPA in the Senate and SOPA in the House, Franken used Hollywood to frame his response about the impact of online piracy.

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"No one cares whether that hurts Brad Pitt, except for Angelina Jolie," Franken said. "But that hurts the grip who does the lighting, that hurts the caterer, that hurts the industry, the editor, the people who develop the film, et cetera."

Franken is a former comedian, writer and actor with many friends in Hollywood and Silicon Valley — the two sides in this week's very public debate.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 2007, Franken has raised more than $900,000 from the entertainment industry and more than $200,000 from the high-tech industry.

In his three years in the Senate, he's made tech issues such as online privacy and net neutrality — the principle that Internet service providers should not be able to favor some users over others — a key part of his portfolio, much to the delight of online liberals who call themselves "netroots activists."

Their ranks include Eric Pusey, who writes for the MN Progressive Project blog, and said he was the first blogger to endorse Franken's bid for the Senate.

"One of his jokes on the stump was that he was getting money from Big Hollywood and Big Comedy and he joked about it [saying] 'Like well, what are they going to want, a battleship?' And know we know what they want, they want PIPA and SOPA."

Pusey warns that Franken's support for this bill could hurt him in 2014, when he's expected to face a tough re-election fight.

"I think a number of people in the online [community] are going to remember this," Pusey said, "especially if he does an online money bomb and all the bloggers go, 'hmmm, yeah, PIPA, maybe I won't post that.' "

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar also co-sponsored the bill. She appeared taken aback by the intensity of the protests on Thursday, before Senate leaders decided to postpone a scheduled vote for next Tuesday.

"A lot of these concerns when it was considered on a committee basis, where it went through unanimously, those weren't made or raised in as loud a voice," she said.

Opponents of the bills argued that the entertainment industry's supporters in Congress drafted the bills with the close cooperation of the industry, particularly the Motion Picture Association of America and the recording industry. They said the tech industry's concerns were given short shrift in the drafting phase.

Supporters of the bills argue they are needed because rampant copyright theft by unauthorized websites located overseas costs American companies billions of dollars a year in lost revenues.

Klobuchar has also received financial support from the entertainment business interests that backed PIPA.

Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that since 2007, Klobuchar has received more than $200,000 from people and companies with entertainment industry ties. She has collected about $70,000 from the high-tech industry which has generally opposed the bill.

Still, University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs thinks that the political storm will eventually blow over for Franken and Klobuchar.

Jacobs also said Franken's response to the debate says a lot about his evolution as a politician.

"I think it does show that Al Franken's political chops are getting better," Jacobs said. "In the old days he might have stormed onto the floor and taken a stand. This one, he kind of just ducked and hid."

Franken's staff said he wasn't available for an interview on the issue this week due to a heavy travel schedule.