ABOVE PHOTO: President Barack Obama meets with the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington.
(AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama entered the fray over two controversial anti-piracy bills with a Jan. 14 statement aligning the White House with technology and Internet community critics of the legislation. The statement put the president on one side of a major debate between two of the biggest donor communities in the Democratic Party — the technology and Internet industry vs. movie and recording companies — in the middle of his reelection campaign.
Obama’s position on the anti-piracy legislation — the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate — hints at the increasing role played by computer and Internet companies, their executives, and their employees in the Democratic Party coalition. Since 2007, executives and employees of such companies have given $52 million to Democratic Party efforts, up $12 million from the period 2001 to 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Hollywood and the entertainment industry, long counted as stalwarts of the Democratic money machine, continue to give more than the party’s new tech friends. The Democratic National Committee received $1 million more from the entertainment sector than from the tech sector through Sept. 30, 2011. The biggest supporter of the president’s reelection was DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has raised at least $500,000 for the reelection and contributed $2 million to a super PAC supporting the president.
Obama has also appeared at a New York fundraiser hosted by Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein and, in one visit to Los Angeles, held three separate fundraisers at the Sony Pictures movie studio. Donors include big-shot Hollywood executives and producers such as Steven Spielberg, Brian Grazer, John Pepper and Katzenberg and actors like Tom Hanks, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Eddie Murphy and Alec Baldwin.
Perhaps it is the entertainment industry’s heavy tilt leftward, rarely giving fewer than 70 percent of all its contributions to Democrats, that makes the industry’s support look like a given. And that may have freed the White House to issue the Jan. 14 statement — written by Victoria Espinal of the Office of Management and Budget, Aneesh Chopra, U.S. chief technology officer, and Howard Schmidt, White House cybersecurity coordinator — on the side of tech community.
A more recent convert to the Democratic coalition, the tech community has a strong relationship with the Obama White House. With its less glamorous, more cerebral stars, it seems like more of a natural fit for Obama than Hollywood. And that fit shows in campaign contributions.
The $9.2 million that Obama raised from the computer and Internet industry in his 2008 campaign is three times more than any other politician had raised from the industry over an entire career. It also marked the first time that computer and Internet interests beat the entertainment industry in donating money to a Democratic presidential candidate. Although the DNC has received significantly more from entertainment companies, the tech and entertainment sectors through Sept. 30, 2011, are nearly evenly matched in giving to President Obama’s reelection campaign: The tech sector gave $1.3 million; the entertainment industry, $1 million.
Silicon Valley and the tech sector overall grew from a small player in politics in 1999 to a major Democratic donor community by 2006, according to a 2008 Atlantic article by Joshua Green — and then further accelerated its involvement with Obama’s 2008 campaign. As Green describes, the increase in contributions from the tech sector were helped along by a shift in fundraising tactics away from the smaller living room events that favor the rich — such as Hollywood elites — and toward a subscription model based on Silicon Valley software sales. This was largely the model that Obama adopted by establishing online fundraising platforms and by connecting rally attendees to those platforms through mobile devices.
The relationship between Obama and tech companies has involved more than money. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes left his Silicon Valley job to help the Obama team run its social networking and online fundraising platforms. Google’s Eric Schmidt served as an informal adviser to the campaign and later went to Washington to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. In the White House, the president appointed the nation’s first chief technology officer and first chief information officer and reached out to the tech community in both Silicon Valley and Washington.
“People in the tech industry appreciate the competence of his tech work and the stand in favor of Internet freedom,” Craig Newmark, who founded the popular site Craigslist.org, told The Huffington Post. Newmark, who calls himself a “libertarian moderate,” added, “His stand regarding SOPA reflects the understanding that it won’t really help stop piracy, but it would do a lot of damage to the U.S. and could shut down much of the tech industry, destroying jobs.”
The Obama administration’s statement on the anti-piracy bills was specifically elicited by an online program, called We The People, that allows citizens to submit petitions asking for a White House statement of policy. An official White House statement is delivered if the petitioners can round up enough people to co-sign their request.
The Jan. 14 statement says that the president “will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.” The White House statement provides a broad critique that largely embraces the arguments of critics of the legislation, such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo.
The administration also stated its opposition to specific elements of the two bills. The statement singled out as a threat to cybersecurity a much-noted provision related to Domain Name System rerouting, recently removed by the bills’ sponsors in Congress.
Despite the president’s seeming abandonment of the entertainment industry on this subject, the industry does not appear ready to quit the president just yet. The Motion Picture Association of America, a major supporter of the anti-piracy bills, decided to interpret the White House statement as a sign of support for its side.