Free speech is a great thing, but what happens when the powers that be don't listen to what's being said? Does that diminish the value of being able to say whatever you want?
It's a question thousands of Canadians are asking themselves right now as the federal government will over the next few months push through new copyright legislation – Bill C-11 – that willfully ignores their concerns.
The chief issue with the legislation is a clause that would make it illegal to break digital locks on electronic content or devices. While C-11 introduces a raft of new beneficent rights for the ordinary person, such as making it explicitly legal to copy a CD onto an iPod or mash-up content into a YouTube video, many are worried that the lock provision will act as a negative "super-clause" that will trump all the other good stuff.
In other words, if you want to copy that CD onto your iPod, go right ahead – unless the record label that produced it says you can't. Want to delve into the electronic guts of your video game console, laptop or DVR to see how it works, perhaps with an eye to improving it? That'll be off limits because the manufacturer says so.
During nation-wide consultations – a hallmark of a country that respects free speech – in 2009, government officials were told repeatedly by the thousands who attended that such a super-clause was a non-starter. More than 6,600 individuals followed up in writing, as did a bevy of organizations representing everyone from teachers, retailers, libraries, artists and privacy commissioners.
Dissenters suggest a compromise, that the lock clause be amended so that it applies only in cases of willful copyright infringement. In other words, if you're running a business that somehow makes money from cracked digital locks, you're offside. But if you're an individual who breaks a DVD's copy protection so that you can put a copy on your iPad, you're clear.
Nevertheless, the government is marching forward with its figurative fingers in its ears, spurred on by the entertainment and technology companies who say the lock protections are needed in order to justify their business cases. Heritage Minister James Moore, who is leading the file, did not respond to a request for comment on this article.
The Canadian government's refusal to listen is in stark contrast to what has been going elsewhere over the past month. In the United States, the public succeeded in killing the Stop Online Piracy Act, a piece of legislation that targeted content piracy and would have created new legal powers to block websites. The nail in SOPA's coffin came from President Barack Obama, who took his cue from the widespread protest – which included online petitions signed by millions of Americans – when he said he would not support the legislation if it were passed by Congress.
In Europe, momentum is growing against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, an international treaty that also seeks to limit the effects of content piracy. Polish protestors got the ball rolling by showing up in droves to rallies across the country. They were upset that their government had signed ACTA without first getting any input on it from the public.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk listened to the protestors last week and suspended ACTA's ratification pending further public consultation, with the Czech Republic and Slovakia following suit. With ACTA requiring consent from all European Union members, its future prospects look bleak.
For anyone keeping track, that's two major victories by the public against the entertainment industry and governments – and two big wins for free speech – inside of a month.
Ironically, Canada is a world leader when it comes to free speech, according to the recently released annual ranking by Reporters Without Borders. The country moved up into the top 10 this year, joining such stalwarts as Finland, Iceland and Switzerland as places that put a high priority on protecting the expression rights of journalists and, as a proxy, their citizenry.
Countries within the top 10 are considered to be in "good" standing by the advocacy group, while nations further down such as Poland (24th) and the United States (47th) are considered merely "satisfactory."
The correlation is more than a little scary: perhaps Canada needs a little less free speech in order for the wishes of the public to be more effective. Either that or the civil opposition to C-11 will have to grow uglier before it can be heard.
Peter Nowak is a technology journalist and author of the best-selling Sex, Bombs and Burgers: How War, Porn and Fast Food Created Technology as We Know It . His blog can be found at WordsByNowak.com .