Michael Geist on the power of blogging and issues that should concern every netizen

Dr. Michael Geist, blogger, columnist and Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa was the featured speaker at this month’s Third Monday social media meetup.

Michael led off his presentation by remarking that blogging had taken on increasing importance for him in the past two years: If you’d asked me this time last year, I wouldn’t have known which I’d give up – the blog or my print column. This year, I know what I’d keep. I’d keep the blog. Because of the people who read it and the interaction I can have with them.

Blogging has enabled Michael to engage a broader community in discussions of significant issues, including Access Copyright’s Captain Copyright and erstwhile Canadian Heritage Parliamentary Secretary Sam Bulte’s relationship with the traditional copyright lobby. Time after time, he has found that people would become engaged in the issues he addressed and respond to his positions. And in doing so, they would advance not only his thinking but also have potential for broader impact.

 Project Cleanfeed is a good example of the potential for blogging discussions to flow over into real world impacts. Project Cleanfeed is an initiative to block access to child pornography. The idea is that the group alerts ISPs to the existence of child pornography images so that the ISPs can block access to them. Michael wrote a post that supported this initiative. This prompted about 60 comments in a few days. Not all agreed with his position. Many offered suggestions for change. Soon after his post, Michael received a call from the Director of Project Cleanfeed. And he was able to make several suggestions that flowed directly from the suggestions that came in on his blog.

This ability to have impact makes blogging highly attractive to anyone who has something to say.

So, what are the big issues that Michael is concerned about these days.

Connectivity: We need a strategy to ensure access to broadband for more Canadians. Michael noted that even a best case scenario will leave 5% of Canadians without access to broadband. At one time Canada stood at #2 in the world in access to broadband. Unfortunately, Canada’s access ranking is “sinking like a stone” and we are now around # 13.

Net Neutrality: This is fundamentally important. And it’s not just a U.S. phenomenon. It affects Canadians. The worst case scenario will come if parties like Google and Amazon decide to pay ISPs for top level service. They can afford it. The ordinary citizen can’t . And to be on the slow lane will hold back the access of those who cannot afford to pay. That will degrade the potential that many of us see in the new media. Canadians should press the government to address net neutraility at the same time it moves forward with telecom deregulation. And it’s the online community that has the opportunity and means to raise this issue.

Sidenote: Amber Mac and some of her friends started Canadians for Net Neutrality group in Facebook. When I looked today, 499 people had joined. 

Intermediaries: Michael recently received a legal notice relating to a comment on his site. This points to the legal protections and obligations of bloggers who allow others to comment on their blogs. In the U.S., parties that host content that is essentially not their own, are free of personal liability. In Canada, our situation is much different. The lack of clear protections creates an incentive for bloggers to delete contentious content. If we are concerned about people coming together to speak out on issues, then our legislators must advance legislation that will provide protection for people who speak out.

Copyright: Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a foundation issue. Think what will happen in a world in which we have all-digital TV that can be “locked down.” We are literally locked out of replicating the digital content for the purpose of ongoing conversation and comment. These discussions have implications beyond whatever you think about peer to peer file sharing. The U.S. already has legislation that tilts in favour of locking down content. Canada is being pressured to fall in line with this regime. Canadians should resist this pressure.

Fair dealing: The Canadian approach to fair dealing differs from that in the U.S. The current 1984/Hillary Clinton mash up would not be legal in Canada. This is another area of policy and law that requires review and updating.

One aspect of fair dealing is the right to share and distribute content that has been created by our government. The U.S. Congress has begun to distribute some content under Creative Commons licence. In Canada, the rights of sharing and republishing Crown Content – that is content that has been created by the government – are not as clear.  Under current Canadian law, the Speaker of the House of Commons seems to be able to determine use on an individual basis. From the perspective of fair dealing, why should we have to ask for permission on a case by case basis to use content generated by our own government? The issue of Crown Copyright is an important issue that should be dealt with to give Canadians free access to the government-generated content that they themselves have paid for.

All in all, an interesting presentation by Canada’s leading expert in e-law. Thanks to Michael for spending an evening with the Third Monday social media meetup group.