Code Yellow: Threats to Freedom of Expression, Online and Off, in Canada
This morning the Huffington Post published an article I wrote for PEN Canada as part of its ‘Non-Speak Week’, “a string of events and exchanges exploring the state of freedom of expression here in Canada”, according to the group. The original version of the piece, with links, is reproduced below.
We reach certain points in time, what the critical media scholar Robert McChesney calls “critical junctures”, or that the sociologist and media historian Paul Starr calls “constitutive moments”. Now is one such moment, and choices and decisions made nowcould tilt the evolution of the network media ecology in Canada toward a more closed, surveilled and centralized regime instead of an open one that strives to put as much of the internet’s capabilities into as many people’s hands as possible. The latter approach maximizes the diversity of voices and is essential to any free press — digital, networked, or otherwise — and to the role of communications media in a democracy.
Threats to an open media and internet ecology, and thus to creative and expressive freedoms in Canada, are unlikely to arrive outfitted in jackboots. Instead, they will arise from the slow, cumulative outcome of decisions that will affect levels of media and internet concentration, internet surveillance for law enforcement and national security reasons, and a concerted push to turn internet service providers (ISPs) and digital intermediaries such as Google and Twitter into agents on behalf of the entertainment and software industries’ copyright maximalist agenda.
In terms of media and internet concentration, Canada already has some of the highest levels of concentration and cross-media ownership in the world. The ‘big four’ telecom-media-internet (TMI) giants – Bell, Shaw, Rogers and Quebecor Media Inc. – already control roughly half of the network media economy in Canada. This is set to get much worse if the CRTC gives Bell’s bid to take-over Astral Media the green light in a decision expected later this year.
The problem of media and internet concentration is crucial to freedom of expression for many reasons. First, large TMI conglomerates are often rickety enterprises that spend more to pay down the debt incurred by acquisitions and mergers than good journalism, investment in new technology and infrastructure, or supporting open media.
Second, these same entities have turned to soft tools of censorship such as usage-based billing and bandwidth caps to protect their investment in legacy media and which are transforming the user-centric internet into the pay-per Internet. Such measures constrain what we can and cannot do with our internet connections. They privilege incumbents’ own online video services while discriminating against other sources. Bandwidth caps are not unique to Canada, but the fact that they are near universal among the big players and set at very low levels with high prices relative to global standards, does set us apart from the rest of the world.
Lastly, a small number of massive integrated media and internet companies are more regulable than many entities of different stripes and sizes. In short, a few big firms make for juicy targets for those who see them as potential tools in their own efforts to push either a law and order agenda, as was the case last year with the Investigative Powers for the 21st Century Act (Bill C-51), or part of the arsenal of a strong copyright enforcement regime, as some sought but did not fully achieve with the Copyright Modernization Act passed earlier this year.
I think we need to push back against the tide. As part of my efforts to do so, over the past year I joined with the Digitally Mediated Surveillance research project and the New Transparency Project to create a video to discuss why internet surveillance and the Harper Government’s proposed lawful access bill specifically are bad for privacy, democracy, civil liberties and an open internet.
That bill died last Parliament and was to be reintroduced with the Government’s omnibus crime bill passed earlier this year. Its essential aim was to have ISPs and telecommunications providers retool their networks with far greater surveillance capabilities and to require telecoms providers, ISPs and search engines to disclose subscriber information, including name, address, IP address, and email addresses, to law enforcement officials without court oversight.
Fortunately, this aspect of the omnibus bill was stripped out at the last minute in the face of withering public criticism led by groups such as Open Media, dissent within the ranks of the Conservative Government, and even a broadside against it in one of Rick Mercer’s famous rants. The victory is significant, but a similar bill sits in the wings waiting for an opportune moment to be reintroduced. Moreover, University of Ottawa law scholar Michael Geist observes that telecoms providers and ISPs already comply with over 90% of requests from law enforcement requests for information about their subscribers without a warrant.
As I said earlier, a few massive firms are more likely to be pliable entities than recalcitrant ones. This example shows that this is, in fact, the case. Such murky ties outside the formal rule of law do not bode well for freedom of expression in Canada, online or off. For an open network media ecology and citizen’s rights to autonomy and to express themselves freely to flourish, the collection, retention and disclosure of personal information between private media companies and the state should be minimized, not maximized.
The final factor in this trilogy of forces bearing down on an open internet is the copyright maximalist agenda. A strong version of this was visible earlier this year in the United States with the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. SOPA would have required: (1) ISPs to block access to ‘rogue websites’, (2) search engines to make such sites disappear from their results, (3) payment providers like Paypal and Visa to cut-off payments, (4) and advertisers to cut-off suspect sites from advertising placement, among other things.
The fundamental remaking of the Internet such activities contemplated unleashed a firestorm of protest, ultimately leading to a tactical withdrawal of SOPA. Yet as SOPA was being withdrawn in the US, copyright maximalists here in Canada were on a roll.
They deployed their hyperbolic rhetoric that carved up the world into good guys and bad guys, with repeated references to “wealth destroyers”, “parasites”, “rogues” and “pirates” to make their case for why Canada needs strong digital locks, longer copyright protection terms, and for ISPs and search engines to step up to the plate on their behalf.
Copyright maximalists spurned claims that their agenda had anything to do with freedom of expression, but last year a United Nations’ report on internet and human rights argued exactly the opposite point of view:
“. . . [C]utting off users from Internet access, regardless of the justification provided, including on the grounds of violating intellectual property rights law, [is] disproportionate and thus a violation of article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” (p. 21).
Article 19, in case you didn’t know, sets out freedom of expression and opinion as a fundamental human right at the global level and calls on the 167 countries that are party to it to promote and protect such rights to the fullest extent possible.
In a powerful testament to the ability of “the Public” to influence arcane matters of policy and law, the copyright maximalist’s got only a fraction of what they wanted: digital locks yes, but no term extensions or requirement that ISPs, search engines and other digital intermediaries serve as tools on their behalf.
These examples suggest that when it comes to freedom of expression, there will be no smoking gun, just a slow tilt biasing the evolution of the telecom-media-Internet infrastructure in favour of greater control on behalf of incumbents, the state and copyright maximalists. For freedom of expression to flourish, we need to keep our eyes wide open to such efforts by stealth that seek to transform the network media ecology into one that is more closed, controlled and regulable.