Who’s Writing Our Laws Now? You Are.
By Greg Stone
“There are so many question marks around it. There is no clarity or transparency. The fact that the only information we have came from a leaked document is alarming.” This is Thanh Lam, a Vancouver Community Network intern who works with Vancouver-based OpenMedia, and she is talking about the TPP.
The TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) is a highly secretive trade agreement, one of the largest ever negotiated, involving twelve countries around the Pacific, with a combined economic power 40% greater than the European Union. It is being negotiated right now, and is expected to be decided upon in December.
One of the many problems with the TPP is that it is not just a trade agreement. Of the 29 chapters included in the agreement, only a handful actually address trade. The others address issues ranging from GMO labeling to the privatization of land.
One of these piggy-backed chapters could criminalize the way many people use the internet today. The TPP is pushing for new laws which would force internet service providers to collect your browsing data, tighten piracy laws, and generally make it easier for corporations to sue internet users for copyright infringement. We know about this chapter of the TPP only because in mid-November, Wikileaks leaked it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have known anything until after it became law.
“This day and age, access to the internet is a right, and so vital to your overall well-being”, says Lam. Lam and her OpenMedia colleagues work to keep the internet open, fair and inclusive, and a current initiative is looking to counter the TPP; crowdsourced copyright legislation. They are collecting information through an online survey about what the general public want in their copyright laws. They will gather all of this information and draft a new digital rights bill, based on the needs and wants of the general public.
“If the TPP negotiators are going to impose an international set of copyright rules, well hey, we’re going to do the same thing,” says Lam. “We’re going to advocate for a fair deal. We are going to advocate for a crowdsourced, open, participatory set of copyright rules that really asks citizens what they feel is just and right.”
When their new crowdsourced bill is completed, OpenMedia will present it to MPs.
Legislative crowdsourcing has never been attempted in Canada, and is certainly in its experimental phase in the handful of countries that have introduced crowdsourcing into the political arena. But it has a lot of promise. Here are some recent examples of crowdsourcing for legislation from around the world, and how effective they have been:
Crowdsourcing a Constitution – Iceland
What happened: In 2008, the economic crash paralyzed the Icelandic parliament. The banks, which had been privatized by the acting government, collapsed and soon after the doors of the Icelandic parliament were greeted with pot-and-pan wielding demonstrators, demanding a brand new constitution. In a first for the world, the new centre-left government decided to crowdsource its new constitution, using social media to accumulate suggestions from the general public, along with an elected Constitutional Council, to draft the new constitution. The result was a highly-popular bill that, among many other things, nationalized all remaining natural resources, saving them from privatization
Was it effective? The bill was put on ice after the centre-right coalition, who have been consistently anti-bill, filibustered it and then won the subsequent election. It is still lingering in Icelandic limbo. Most change doesn’t happen overnight, and old politics don’t die easily. However, there is still massive support for this initiative, and it garnered a lot of public attention, and likely changed how many Icelanders view their political power. It is estimated that roughly half of Iceland’s voting population contributed to the constitution.
SOPA & PIPA – USA
What happened: In 2011, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT Intellectual Property (PIPA) Act were introduced in the US, and they sought to make it easier for the American government to crack down on digital copyright infringement. Opposition to the bills was loud and strong, including Rep. Darrel Issa’s initiative to crowdsource new legislation called Keep the Web Open. Set up like a wiki, the Keep the Web Open website allows citizens to edit existing US legislation, and resulted in the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade (OPEN) Act, drafted by average citizens.
Was it effective? Damn straight. On January 18, 2012, the OPEN Act was formally introduced into the House of Representatives. The user-drafted bill allows greater intellectual property right for artists, and generally keeps the internet more open. This initiative, along with other massive online protests (remember when Wikipedia, Reddit, Google, Flickr and Mozilla blacked out?), has stalled the SOPA and PIPA bills from passing.
Common Sense Crowdsource – Finland
What happened: Earlier this year, more than 50,000 Finns voted to overhaul the country’s strict copyright laws. The Finnish government recently established the Open Ministry, which allows any one citizen to propose new legislation on a government website. If the new legislation gets 50,000 supporting votes, it goes before Parliament. An NGO crowdsourced a new intellectual property bill, called the Common Sense in Copyright Act, getting input from more than 1,100 Finnish citizens about what they thought was fair copyright legislation. The NGO then submitted the new bill to Open Ministry, garnered the 50,000 votes needed, and soon the new, crowdsourced bill will go before parliament. The new bill lowers the charges for copyright infringement, allows teachers to use copyrighted materials, and generally eases the country’s copyright laws.
Was it effective? We’ll see. The new bill still has a long way to go. First, the Finnish government has to make sure that all of the 50,000 people who supported the bill are actually Finnish voters. Then, the government decides. And, so far, under the new Open Ministry, only one bill has actually even made it before parliament. So, again, old politics get in the way. But this initiative marks a massive paradigm shift in digital rights in Finland, and even politics in general.
A Difference in Will – Canada
So, when OpenMedia approaches the government with its shiny new crowdsourced copyright legislation, how will it be received? It’s tough to say, since this is the first crowdsourced bill ever in Canada. OpenMedia’s biggest resistence will likely be that the Canadian government does not have an earpiece for this type of initiative. There is no will for it. The Finnish government has the Open Ministry, which legally must at least entertain citizen’s suggestions that garner 50,000 supporters. The United States has the OpenGov Foundation, which was founded in part by Rep. Darrel Issa and lets citizens make suggestions about legislation. In Iceland, the crowdsourced constitution was basically a government initiative. The Canadian government has no department or vehicle that will acknowledge legislation suggested by citizens, and it needs one.
For now, Canadians will need to rely on forward-thinking third parties, like OpenMedia, if crowdsourcing is going to be taken seriously as an open, political alternative here.
“We want to have a healthy conversation, and I think we just need to bring it back to democratic openness,” says Lam, “and that is definitely a non-partisan issue.”