Online piracy bill sparks PR scuffle

Google, Facebook, and non-governmental organizations are facing off against the entertainment industry in a communications battle to influence legislator and public opinion on The Stop Online Piracy Act.

WASHINGTON: Google, Facebook, and non-governmental organizations are facing off against the entertainment industry in a communications battle to influence legislator and public opinion on The Stop Online Piracy Act.

The bill, which is supported by a range of entertainment companies, would create stronger enforcement mechanisms to fight online piracy, but critics counter it would give law enforcement authorities the ability to shut down their sites too easily.

Entertainment industry players formed the Creative America group in July to support the copyright enforcement bill.

“There's simply no excuse for stealing,” says Pamela Greenwalt, communications executive director for the Screen Actors Guild. “So it makes sense for the industry to pool our energy, our numbers, and our strength.”

Creative America has worked closely with its coalition partners, which include unions, guilds, networks, and studios, to reach their members and employees through internal communications efforts and social media channels. The Screen Actors Guild, for instance, linked to the Creative America website in hundreds of thousands of emails to its members, Greenwalt explains.

The bill, if passed, would allow the US Justice Department and copyright holders to block payment processors and ad networks from doing business with sites accused of copyright infringement after a court order. Court orders could also be used to stop search engines from linking to sites accused of infringing.

The coalition is also focusing its message on the need for the bill to protect creativity, pensions, benefits, welfare funds, and investment incentives for TV and film. It has also stressed that jobs are lost due to content theft, notes Craig Hoffman, communications director at Creative America.

The group's external outreach tactics include a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account. Creative America is also using its YouTube and Vimeo channels to show ads and a documentary about stolen films and TV shows on the Internet.

In addition, Creative America members videotaped messages to Congress asking it to support the legislation, which was posted on YouTube and sent to members of the House Judiciary Committee. The organization is also planning “targeted PR activities in local markets that are important to the passage of the bill,” says Hoffman.

“We also intend to go into each House member's constituency and let our supporters know how their congressperson voted in markup,” he adds. The group will release several more videos in coming months via its social media channels, says Hoffman.

Tech sector giants such as Google and Facebook have countered that the bill is too sweeping and could result in censorship of the Web, but Hoffman says “many of these companies have a significant financial stake in defeating these bills. They have not been above using misinformation or outright lies to create an atmosphere of fear among those who use the Internet.” 

Google, Yahoo, and Facebook did not return inquiries seeking comment from PRWeek.

Yet Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit that promotes Internet rights, says the entertainment industry has positioned its messaging “to make this about Google's business interests when in fact it's not.”

EFF's communications strategy to fight the bill has included helping other stakeholder groups understand the threat they say the bill poses to fundamental rights like free speech and Internet security. “By doing that, we have galvanized other kinds of responses from people,” says McSherry.

EFF also helped organize a letter to Congress from a group of Internet engineers, including “godfathers of the Internet” Vint Cerf and Paul Vixie. In addition, EFF live tweeted the US House of Representatives debate about the bill on December 15. “This process can be opaque for most voters and Internet users, so we can help inform people to what is going on,” she says.

Arvind Ganesan, director of Human Rights Watch's business and human rights program, says NGOs have written letters to Congress opposing the bill. Human Rights Watch has also reached out to media about the issue to broaden the conversation about the bill.

“The media coverage has generally portrayed the issue as those who want to protect intellectual property and those who don't want to be held libellous for it,” says Ganesan. “I actually don't feel the human rights and civil liberties angles have been addressed as much as they could be, and ought to be.”

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