Dr. Michael Geist and the fight for Canada’s digital future

Red Deer CollegeIn the fall of 2007 there was a plethora of newsworthy events going on in Canada. The war in Afghanistan, the surging loonie and its impact on exports, the Pickton trial, the bluster of Conrad Black, and much, much more.

It’s no wonder politicians and news media alike expressed a sense of amazement that copyright, of all things, had suddenly become a hot-potato item in Canada.

When asked how this could happen, Dr. Michael Geist, internationally renowned Internet and E-Commerce law professor (see his bio and Wikipedia entry) had two answers; a short one and a long one.

Dr. Michael GeistThe short answer was “the rise of digital advocacy”.

The longer answer was addressed by Dr. Geist at Red Deer College in Alberta last night at a lecture entitled “Why copyright? The Fight for Canada’s Digital Future”, the latest of the college’s outstanding Perspectives series.

The rise of digital advocacy has been meteoric, to say the least. Web 2.0 or “social media” applications such as blogs and Wikis, Facebook, MySpace and now Twitter have given the power to organize and mobilize to the masses. It’s simply easier and more efficient to find people of like-mind and take action.

Dr. Geist related the story of the Facebook page “Fair Copyright for Canada” which he created on a Saturday night when he had “nothing else to do”. Within 24 hours that group had 1000 members, within months ballooning to 20,000 members; currently it is subscribed to by over 90,000 Canadians.

That Facebook page spawned local chapters that would meet in the “real world”. Demonstrations ensued, such as the “pancake protestors” (as dubbed by Maclean’s Magazine). YouTube videos and parodies were created, blogs were written, and more.


Facebook group Fair copyright for Canada

Dr. Geist went on to catalog an impressive array of digital advocacy efforts from around the world, such as a YouTube video plea from Burmese monks, Orwellian depictions of Hillary Clinton and Tunisian President Ben Ali, the amazing ushahidi.com where Kenyans can report violence by mobile, e-mail, or web, and the sobering Google Earth application that maps the crisis in Darfur. In other words, people all over the globe are using these new tools to have a voice.

Was the “wisdom of the crowd” the catalyst to table the proposed Canadian legislation? Even the venerable Globe and Mail was uncertain, but one has to assume the vociferous outcry of the digerati had some, if not considerable, influence.

The next attempt to introduce similar legislation in the fall of 2008 met with favorable media coverage for the first 24 hours, but as Canadians dug deeper over the coming days and weeks, reviews were more and more critical of the perceived anti-consumer bias in the proposed legislation Bill C-61 (which Dr. Geist characterizes as a near-copy of the restrictive American Digital Millenium Copyright Act).

Ultimately C-61 was derailed by the September 2008 election call.

Aside from digital advocacy, Dr. Geist’s “longer answer” touched on three key points:

  • Our digital future – emphasizing the importance of Canadians having the ability to participate, express and share our culture and content, educate ourselves and build knowledge, and to maintain consumer rights so we are not unduly shackled in our digital actions
  • Copyright voices – finding a fair balance in copyright legislation between content creators, users, and “mixers” with an emphasis on flexible “fair use” policy
  • Copyright choices – Dr. Geist insisted this can be a non-partisan issue that could lead to a “made in Canada” solution as opposed to mimicking the American DMCA

My “live Tweet” notes on this event can be found on Twitter search here (note: they run in reverse chronological order). For more depth on this issue and Dr. Geist’s position, have a look at this April 2008 video of Dr. Geist presenting the same topic to University of Calgary students, or check out Dr. Geist’s PowerPoint slides from an older version of this presentation. Finally, Dr. Geist’s own website, www.michaelgeist.ca is a wealth of information.

Doug Lacombe, MBA is a Calgary-based blogger and communicator with over 20 years experience in media, marketing, and communications. More info on Doug can be found on DougLacombe.com.