Thursday, September 22, 2011

Character assassinations in Ontario election

Last evening I was invited on an episode of Dyscultured, which had a special theme. Anthony Marco, one of the founding co-hosts of the show, put his name into the race to run in Niagara West-Glanbrook for the NDP in the Ontario election.

The Liberal party, or at least some misguided spokespersons, have decided that taking comments out of context to character assassinate political opponents is an appropriate campaign strategy. You can see the type of embarrassing crap coming out of the Liberal Party of Ontario on Liberals Call on NDP to Dump Candidate, The Full Anthony Marco Text - Which Part Does The NDP Believe Is Misrepresented?, and More from NDP's Anthony Marco - Ontarians are "lazy".

The comical aspect of this is that the "Which Part Does The NDP Believe Is Misrepresented" press release contains an exert that makes clear that Anthony did not say what the Liberal party is alleging he said. Unfortunately, there will be many people who won't read even that tiny exert to realize the Liberals are playing dirty pool. This is a sad part of politics: that few spend the time to learn the facts, and shallow immature political rhetoric all too often wins a debate.

Anthony is a complex multi-dimensional person who has been expressing his ideas online for many years. I had been listening to a few of his podcasts for a few years already when he totally blew me away at PAB back in June.

The first thing that came to mind with this smear campaign is how we need to mature politics from what the Liberals are doing in a world where more people are living their lives in public. Words and ideas that may have been quickly forgotten a few hours after people went home from the social event, are archived forever online. Some people like to talk about this as a problem for youth, but for people like Anthony or myself we have been living in a long-term publicly archived space for much of our lives. You can still read some of the silly questions I asked about copyright back in 1992, when I was first joining the Free Software movement. Someone could easily take that question, pretend it was asked recently, and ruin my credibility as someone who has spent much of the last decade dedicated to learning about copyright in order to help with forward-looking policy proposals.

The last thing we want is allow politics to be something that can only be done by stick-figure people with no real history, and who have never spent time thinking about complex issues. Even though Anthony is running for the NDP, I would vote for him if he was in my riding based on him being a real person who has given some real thought to real issues. Many of his podcasts include him thinking out loud about real issues of the day, something that I think should be seen as a requirement of a good politician : not something to avoid.

Reading a few more articles about the issue, it turns out that the smear campaign was largely launched by Liberal candidate Bernie Farber who is running in Thornhill. Mr Farber was previously the CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), which made this smear campaign seem all too familiar.

I have run into the CJC a few times in the past, and always in the context of attempts at censorship. Their general policy seemed to be to use (or abuse) the legal courts and the court of public opinion to try to stop people from talking about anything they didn't like to be said, including people questioning whether censorship is a good public policy. I had some personal experience with this type of campaign in 2001 when a few individuals (with the support of the CJC) were trying to censor the words of David Icke. They alleged his words were anti-Semitic -- and as a result of the Streisand effect I read and found that he was really just a kook that should have been left alone in obscurity. I knew, from asking my Jewish friends what they thought of the policies of the CJC, that these pro-censorship policies were not representative of the views of the wider Canadian Jewish community, but really only of the executive of that specific association. It is very unfortunate that one of this executive has taken his campaign as part of this election.

Like Anthony, I am a strong believer in free speech. A support of free speech doesn't mean supporting speech you like, but fighting to defend the right of people to say things you personally feel are disgusting. When I tried to promote free speech a decade ago I ended up being accused of being anti-Semitic, and separately had people threatening to sue me for defamation for simply documenting what these opponents to free speech were doing. These folks didn't care at all what damage they did by falsely accusing people of being anti-Semitic, or accusing people of being apologists for genocidal activities.

While I strongly disagree with Bernie Farber's long-standing political views, I still support his right to express them. There are, however, appropriate limits to free speech in a free society when it comes to defamation and specific political tactics. Will Mr. Farber's harmful and selfish political campaign damage Anthony's reputation or cause problems at his job? He is a high-school teacher, and I know how the school boards can sometimes not adequately support staff that get caught up in unfounded controversies.

My hope is that more people will read past the bogus headlines to see what is going on. It is not the credibility of Anthony Marco, or his suitability to be a politician, that should be being questioned. We should be questioning whether we want to have people like Bernie Farber elected to represent us in the government, given how little respect he offers to fellow citizens. We also have to question whether the Liberal party of Ontario is still fit to govern, given how willing they have been to stand by and promote this smear campaign. I live in Ottawa South and have asked for some feedback from Liberal candidate Dalton McGuinty about whether he condones this smear campaign. Unless he comes out clearly against what Mr. Farber and supporters have been doing, there is no way I can consider him a credible candidate for my vote.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Why it is important to engage on creators' rights discussions

Just over a week ago, the Globe and Mail published an article by Kate Taylor that had the sensationalist headline "It’s writers v. professors in the latest war of words". I don't know if it was an editor that created the headline, but it is very misleading as the debate she wrote was more about the different views between different writers than about anyone else. The body of the article did suggest that, "The knowledge community is divided against itself".

She wrote about successful Canadian-born science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow, and how he believes that the radical changes proposed to how communications technology is owned an controlled can not rationally be justified by copyright. As a fellow person with a technical background, he understand how this technology works better than most writers.

When I explain the specific technology under debate I speak about how there are 4 classes of owners (not one), and two digital locks (not one). The 4 classes of owners are content copyright holders, owners of tangible media, software authors and owners of tangible computer hardware.

The most controversial of the two locks is the lock applied to hardware and/or software where the owner of the hardware is specifically denied the keys to what they own. Anyone who has a basic understanding of why we have property rights enshrined not only in domestic law, but the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, can see how denying owners the keys to the locks on what they own can have serious implications. Rather than protecting the rights of owners, the proposed laws specifically prohibit owners from changing the keys to the locks on what they own: making the protection of ones own property rights illegal.

From a narrow authors rights perspective, it should be obvious how their ability to use their own communications tools to create and distribute their own works is threatened by these non-owner locks. Even if we had no consideration for all the other rights threatened by these non-owner locks, we should be rejecting them as an attack on authors' rights.

The second lock is a lock on content which makes the content only interoperable with specific brands of non-owner locked hardware and software. This lock will either drive people to non-owner locked hardware, or drive people to accessing infringing material which is unlocked. Both of these alternatives are harmful to the interests of authors, so the legal protection of these anti-interoperability locks should be rejected as a threat to authors' rights.

Ms. Taylor was correct in identifying that there are writers who believe that these two types of locks are a threat to creators' right and other writes, and other writers who believe they will somehow help their interests. It is critical that those of us who understand that "copy control" is only a marketing term, not a real technology, to participate in discussions. Eventually more people will recognise that these types of locks represent a far greater threat to the interests of writers than any amount of copyright infringement.

While it is true that "users'-rights advocates" oppose anti-interoperability locks on content and non-owner locks on our computing hardware, there are also many writers and other creators that share this opposition. There are a few technology companies that might benefit from the anticompetitive impacts of these locks, but the vast majority of proponents are people inadvertently advocating for changes to the law which will harm their own interests.

One of the other issues mentioned by Ms. Taylor related to Access Copyright, which offers one of many options to the educational community to license educational content. This section was corrected by Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, in a later article in the Globe and Mail with the headline "Pirates of academe? We laugh".

This is a case of anticompetitive behaviour by Access Copyright. It would be as if Canadian Tire claimed "theft" if customers bought a product from Walmart instead. This type of behaviour from Access Copyright is unfortunately not new, and I have been exposed to many advocates for Access Copyright over the years who really think their customers (or in some cases colleagues) in the educational sector are immoral in some way. The more heated the rhetoric from Access Copyright devotees, the less interested their customers will become in paying them for the privilege of being insulted.

It isn't correct to suggest this is a matter of "universities playing hardball with textbook publishers and freelance writers." Access Copyright is a middle-man between writers and universities, and it is quite possible that the alternative licensing methods being explored by universities will be more lucrative for writers. Even for authors who are focused on royalties as a method of payment, Access Copyright's policies have become controversial (See the Creators' Access Copyright blog).

This is not to say that the educational sector is without its faults when it comes to educational copyright. While outside the scope of the current abusive debate, the Council of Ministers of Education did propose a carve-out of provincially chartered educational institutions from copyright. This is a very bad policy for a number of reasons I have outlined in the past. This policy mis-educates our children about how copyright works and would inevitably induce them to infringe outside the classroom. I consider education institutional exceptions to copyright to be a government program, paid for on the backs of copyright holders, masquerading as copyright. I consider it dishonest for provincial Ministers of Education to be proposing pick-pocketing authors, rather than ensuring adequate provincial funding for education.

Many of the problems with institution-specific exceptions to copyright also apply to the blanket licensing promoted by Access Copyright. Copyright is very complex, and if we are worried about students and teachers/professors inadvertently infringing copyright then we need to both clarify and simplify copyright (in future bills), as well a provide unbiased education on copyright to students. On both of these proposals Access Copyright has not been helpful, advocating for making copyright more complex in submissions on copyright reform, as well as providing inaccurate information on copyright (Example: Captain Copyright).

The provincial educational funding issues, educational institutional exceptions to copyright, and related controversies weren't mentioned in the article by Ms. Taylor, but did get discussed in the follow-up comments to the articles and on Twitter.

At least one person suggested on twitter a "Mortal Combat Style" fight between John Degen and myself. I don't enjoy the interactions with John which are an example of the heated discussion that Ms. Taylor was discussing. He starts his commentary on Ms. Taylor's article by suggesting that "ideologues have muddled the whole issue with scary half-truths about copyright and the future of culture". Rather than then talking about his own participation in the copyright debate that could easily be characterised that way, he tore into professional author Cory Doctorow. It shouldn't be surprising that conversations get heated when this is the starting point.

I believe Cory to be one of the most outspoken protector of the rights and interests of authors. He doesn't confuse expanding copyright with protecting authors' rights, given he understands that there can be both too much and too little copyright from the perspective of authors. It is unfortunate to see some people attack Cory, claiming they are doing so in the name of authors' rights. When this happens it is not Cory's qualifications as a creators' rights advocate that come into question, but whether the person attacking is either knowingly or inadvertently harming the interests of authors.

The other person that John referenced in his comment, but didn't name, is University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist. The claim was that Mr. Geist has been "attacking Access Copyright at every turn", when in fact it has been devotees of Access Copyright who have been attacking Michael Geist at every turn. I've been at more than one conference where Geist was insultingly referred to as "he who shall not be named", embarrassingly making analogies between Mr. Geist as the villain in the Harry Potter stories.

Both Michael Geist and Cory Doctorow are moderates in the debate. They neither believe in maximising or minimising copyright, but striking the right balance between the interests of existing copyright holders, new creators, audiences of these works, and society as a whole. These moderates are attacked by both of the extremes: by people who disagree with their strong support of copyright as a tool to protect the rights and interests of authors, as well as those who falsely believe that "if some copyright is good, more must be better".

But... this is politics. One of the ways to make ones own more extreme position seem reasonable is to claim that moderates are radicals. The constant attack by some individuals of people like Cory Doctorow and Michael Geist is an unfortunate but understandable political ploy. Not only do we need to correct the record when these people post incorrect information about the impact of various policies, but we need to challenge them on their fictional misrepresentation of fellow rights activists.