The Obama administration signaled Saturday it does not support aspects of pending anti-piracy legislation, a setback for the Motion Picture Assn. of America, Hollywood's chief lobbying arm.
The measures — which have deeply divided the entertainment and technology industries— would give the Justice Department more tools to shut down foreign websites involved in theft of movies and TV shows.
Major Hollywood studios and unions have been mounting a campaign in support of the bills to combat online piracy, which costs the industry billions annually. Google, Facebook and other tech companies have been fiercely opposed to the legislation, particularly provisions that would allow the Justice Department to obtain court orders requiring Internet search engines and payment processors to block access to websites involved in piracy.
Critics have said the bills wending their way through Congress — the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) — would limit freedom of speech on the Internet and unfairly punish legitimate websites.
Those concerns were echoed in the White House statement.
"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 cyber-security risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet," said Victoria Espinel, intellectual property enforcement coordinator; Aneesh Chopra, U.S. chief technology officer; and Howard Schmidt, cyber-security coordinator for the national security staff.
The administration specifically raised concerns about provisions that would require a search engine to break the link that directs a person to a site engaged in piracy. Critics say that could encourage people to access such sites using unreliable offshore servers that may import damaging viruses, posing a security risk.
A spokesman for a coalition of technology companies fighting the measures said: "We appreciate the administration's recognition that our ability to innovate, invest and grow the economy is dependent upon keeping the Internet free and open."
The House Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on the SOPA bill later this month, while the Senate could take up its PIPA anti-piracy bill as early as this month. Both bills are likely to be modified to reflect the administration's concerns.
The MPAA disputed the notion that the bills impede freedom of speech or innovation and renewed its support for tougher anti-piracy laws.
"Every day, American jobs are threatened by thieves from foreign-based rogue websites," an MPAA official said in a statement. "This deplorable situation persists because U.S. law enforcement does not have the tools to fight back."