Trying to understand parliamentarians’ misunderstanding of core new technology issues

When asked about what the core concepts are for understanding what made “new media” possible, I talk about two things:


  • the movement away from communications technology where the network was smart and the terminals were dumb (radio, television, telephone), towards a design where the network is dumb and the terminals are smart (also known as the end to end principle)
  • the movement away from communications technologies being expensive and only owned by large media companies, to technology being owned and controlled by private citizens

Combined, these two features enable innovation since any two persons can communicate with each other in any way they want simply by making agreements between those two parsons, and configuring their ’smart terminals’ to communicate in this manner.

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee felt the need to create the communications protocol that has become known as the World Wide Web, he did not have to ask permission to do so. He wrote software to run on a computer he controlled to answer on a “port” of his choosing, and wrote software that could be run on other peoples computers that would connect to that port using a protocol of his own design.

Pretty much all the innovation that we attribute to the Internet happened this way, and we know that the story would be very different if these innovators needed to ask permission or make special payments in order to create these new communications protocols.

Obviously those companies that previously controlled the smart networks or otherwise controlled old media aren’t going to be happy with this transition, and are going to fight back. This opposition to this citizen control over media comes in many forms, but the two most often heard phrases are “Network Neutrality” and “Digital Rights Management”. Both debates come down to a simple question: Should private citizens be able to own and control their own “smart terminals” in this dumb-by-design network, or should the suppliers of the hardware, software and connectivity be granted control and effective ownership?

For me the answer is simple, and I believe private citizens should have all the control. Going backward to dumb terminals or terminals under the control of the vendors will only stagnate our economy, as well as put us backwards with respect to the non-economic benefits of citizen controlled media.

Mixed messages

While I will talk about the mixed messages from politicians a bit later, I want to talk about the mixed messages from creator groups. You will often hear creators talking about the need for “Net Neutrality”, recognizing that if a third party (the theoretical “owner” of the wires) is able to filter or prioritize network traffic based on their own special interests, that this will harm creators. A growing number of creators recognize the benefits of a network which enables them to skip old-economy intermediaries to more directly reach their audiences.

For reasons I have to admit to being unclear about, they don’t recognize the identical threat then it comes to the question of who controls the individual devices which we posses. A far worse threat exists when the manufacturer of a device controls the device than when a network provider controls the network.

My only guess is that the marketing message has been different. When DRM manufacturers promote their wares they have convinced creators that they are on their side, and that the DRM manufacturers have the interests of creators in mind. When the old phone and cable companies promote the idea of breaking neutrality and filtering or prioritizing traffic, their primary claim is that they own the wires and should be able to profit from their ownership in any way they can. The phone and cable companies don’t include creators as beneficiaries.

While creators are not beneficiaries of either method of revoking control over communications technology and networks from them and other private citizens, many creators have understood these simiar issues as if they were different.

What about our Canadian politicians

As someone who watches Canadian federal politicians ideas about technology law very closely, I am often asked where their thinking is.

I’ll start with the exception to my general observations, which is Charlie Angus, the current MP for Timmins–James Bay. You can get a flavour of what he thinks by reading his latest article WIPO reality check: NDP offers Prentice a way through copyright morass which also appeared in this weeks Hill Times. Being an independent musician before being elected, Mr. Angus has written about DRM and Network Neutrality many times in the past, and given speeches about the democratic and other benefits of new communications technology.

While the article title above suggests that the “NDP” as a party offers something, my experience has been that this isn’t a partisan issue where any party is better than any other. This is an issue that comes down to individuals who have key knowledge and experience. This is why it is important for those interested in protecting new media to do what they can to keep Mr. Angus on the hill, whatever their feelings are about any particular political party.

While Mr Reg Alcock previously was another person who understood the issues, he lost his seat in the 2006 election. I have met with a number of politicians to discuss these files, and while many seemed very open minded and willing to talk, none of those currently sitting appear to have the knowledge or experience that Mr. Angus does.

Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage

Individual members of parliament do not become specialists on every issue. Much of the work happens at committees where individual MPs self-select which committees they will be on. Membership numbers are divided up by party so that the membership has similar percentages to those in the house.

The committees that deal with the issues we are concerned with are the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage (CHPC) and Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology (INDU). There is considerable overlap in policy, especially under convergence with traditional “telecommunications” (phone) companies merging (both technologically and otherwise) with “broadcast undertakings” (cable, satellite, etc) which are still largely regulated as if they were distinct sectors. In the case of copyright law, the copyright act lists the Minister of Industry as the minister responsible for the act even though it has traditionally been the Minister of Canadian Heritage, that ministry, and the Heritage Committee that has taken the lead on that file.

Heritage committee recently completed a study called “Full investigation of the Role of a Public Broadcaster in the 21st Century“. This report contained a few pages on the concept of “Network Neutrality”, and included 2 related recommendations that favoured neutrality. While this study was only of the CBC, there seemed to be recognition that protection of neutrality is needed. What is good for the CBC should obviously be good for other content creators and their audiences.

In June 2003 the same committee released a report entitled “Our Cultural Sovereignty : The Second Century of Broadcasting” which spoke about the problems of media concentration, and possible policy solutions to avoid the harm of centralized control over broadcasting.

While there has been a small amount of discussion of issues around convergence, this committee continues to discuss this issue under “broadcasting”. While an end-to-end network allows one-to-many communications, that is only one of many configurations that must be left under the control of the endpoints. This means that while the Internet can facilitate broadcasting, it isn’t a broadcast medium, and cannot be regulated like one. Internet Service Providers should not be compared to broadcasters in that older media, but to “the air” that sits between a radio wave broadcasting antennae and our receivers. It is an endpoint that is configured in a one-to-many way that should be treated as a broadcaster. ISPs shouldn’t be allowed any more control over, mandated any more responsibility for, or asked to pay levies towards, the content of traffic than the owners of tangible property (land, homes, etc) that radio waves travel through.

While an end-to-end network allows one-to-one voice communications, it is also not a phone network and cannot be regulated as one for the same reasons it can’t be regulated as if it were a broadcast undertaking.

The fact that this committee is looking narrowly and not the big picture has allowed a committee that suggests benefits of network neutrality, and the harm of media concentration, to also be the strongest proponents of so-called “Digital Rights Management” (specifically, Technical Control Measures (TCM) as discussed in a previous article). They have called many times for WIPO Internet treaty (WCT, WPPT) ratification with strong anti-circumvention. It is likely because of the same misinformation that has confused creator groups into wanting to protect their control over technology in some instances, but give it away in others.

What to do?

I will make the same suggestion I have in the past: talk to your member of parliament. Make sure they understand these core issues so that the government can regulate this industry appropriately, and have a consistent message that promotes innovation as well as the non-economic benefits of decentralized citizen controlled media.

If you know an MP that you feel understands these issues that I have not written about, please let me know. I want to ensure I know as much as possible about every sitting MP, and every candidate for future election that has personal views on these issues. We have a tool on the Digital Copyright Canada website where you can look up your riding to find out who your MP is and if we have written anything about them yet.

Russell McOrmond is a self employed consultant, policy coordinator for CLUE: Canada’s Association for Free/Libre and Open Source Software, co-coordinator for Getting Open Source Logic INto Governments (GOSLING), and host for Digital Copyright Canada.

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