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Copyright Delay Demonstrates the Power of Facebook

Appeared in the Toronto Star on December 17, 2007 as Facebook More Than Just a Cool Tool For Kids

If 2006 was the year of YouTube, 2007 has been Facebook's year.  The growth of social media, led by Facebook, has taken the world by storm.  Since January, Facebook has added 250,000 new users each day.  Canadians have led the way, accounting for about 8 million of the site's nearly 60 million global users.  

The hyper-growth does not tell the whole story, however.  Facebook has also garnered considerable attention regarding its user privacy policies, online marketing strategies, and the short-sighted decision of some companies and governments to block employee access to the site.

While these issues have shone the spotlight on some of the challenges of social media, the lasting lesson of Facebook may come from a series of events that unfolded over the past two weeks.  They demonstrate that Facebook is far more than just a cool way to catch up with old friends; rather, it is an incredibly effective and efficient tool that can be used to educate and galvanize grassroots advocacy, placing unprecedented power into the hands of individuals.

There is no shortage of hyperbole associated with Facebook, social media, and the emergence of "Web 2.0," yet consider the experience of the Fair Copyright for Canada Facebook group, which I launched on December 1st with limited expectations. With the federal government expected to introduce new copyright reform within a matter of days, a Facebook group seemed like a good way to educate the public about an important issue.  I sent invitations to a hundred or so Facebook friends and seeded the group with links to a few relevant websites.

What happened next was truly remarkable – within hours, the group started to grow – first 50 members, then 100, and then 1000 members.  One week later, there were 10,000 members.  Two weeks later, there were over 25,000 members with another Canadian joining the group every 30 seconds.

The big numbers tell only part of the story. The group is home to over 500 wall posts, links to 150 articles of interest, over 50 discussion threads, dozens of photos, and nine videos.  Nine days ago, it helped spur on an offline protest when Kempton Lam, a Calgary technologist, organized 50 group members who descended on Industry Minister Jim Prentice's local open house to express their views on copyright.

While Facebook was not the only source of action – there was mounting coverage from the mainstream media along with hundreds of blog postings (including three hundreds questions posted for Prentice at the CBC Search Engine blog) – the momentum was unquestionably built on thousands of Canadians who were determined to have their voices heard.

Much to the surprise of skeptics who paint government as unable or unwilling to listen to public concerns, those voices had an immediate impact.  Ten days after the Facebook group's launch, Prentice delayed introducing the new copyright reforms, seemingly struck by the rapid formation of concerned citizens who were writing letters and raising awareness.

Not only had tools like Facebook had an immediate effect on the government's legislative agenda, but the community that developed around the group also led to a "crowdsourcing" of knowledge.  Canadians from coast to coast shared information, posed questions, posted their letters to politicians, and started a national conversation on copyright law in Canada.

This scenario cannot be repeated for every issue.  In this instance, Canadians increasingly recognized the detrimental effect of the proposed copyright reforms on consumer rights, privacy, and free speech, and were moved to act.  

Yet for similarly placed concerns, the lesson of the past two weeks is that politicians, companies, and other organizations can ill-afford to ignore a medium that is capable of mobilizing tens of thousands within a matter of days.  Those caught flatfooted may ultimately find themselves struggling to save face.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.

7 Comments

  1. p2pnet
    Hi Michael:

    IMHO, it isn’t the power of Facebook —- it’s the power of p2p and the new online media.

    Facebook is a hard-core corporate enterprise answerable only to the shareholders. It has little to do with anything else, let alone freedom of expression.

    Kempton Lam is the story, and so are you.

    I’m a great admirer of yours [[ link ]] but I have to say that when someone such as yourself lavishes this kind of praise on an entity which takes advantage of, rather than helps, its members, it doesn’t help the continued development of the Net as a unique free and open space where people can communicate without interference from vested commercial interests.

    But again, that’s just MHO : )

    Cheers!
    Jon

  2. Chris Charabaruk says:

    Facebook is the empowerer, Jon, and that’s what Michael is getting at here. People aren’t all that good for signing petitions or attending rallies just out of nowhere, but when many people are brought together with something like Facebook, the ability to reach out to others who may share similar views on various issues is strengthened a hundredfold. The story here is how Facebook allowed Michael to gather us Canadians worried about copyright, and how it allowed Kempton Lam to suggest infiltrating the open house and turn that into fifty or so people actually showing up.

    Whether or not Facebook is a corporate entity is immaterial, too. Were they to clamp down on these sorts of things, it’s likely that another business would pop up with a similar website without any such restriction. And even if that didn’t happen, it would surprise me if the open-source scene wouldn’t put something together themselves (out of old 386s and duct tape if they had to).

    And I don’t think of Facebook taking advantage of me. Sure it uses me as eyeballs for showing advertisements to, but even I do that on my personal site. Facebook has certainly helped me. Your last bit there, I’m sorry to say, simply sounds like anti-business ranting. Remember, we’re anti-copyright “reform” favouring business, not anti-business itself.

  3. Hi Chris:

    “The story here is how Facebook allowed Michael to gather us Canadians worried about copyright, and how it allowed Kempton Lam to suggest infiltrating the open house and turn that into fifty or so people actually showing up.”

    Precisely.

    “People aren’t all that good for signing petitions or attending rallies just out of nowhere …”

    Actually, Chris, they are, these days, thanks to the Net.

    “Sure it uses me as eyeballs for showing advertisements to, but even I do that on my personal site.”

    So do I. But I didn’t set up a plan to follow people around afterwards without their permission so I could sell the proceeds to advertisers.

    “Your last bit there, I’m sorry to say, simply sounds like anti-business ranting.”

    I think you need to read it again.

    “Remember, we’re anti-copyright ‘reform’ favouring business, not anti-business itself.”

    Nor am I anti-business. I am, however, any business which treats its users like idiots and cynically invades their privacy.

    Cheers!
    Jon

  4. Ooops : ) The last sentence should of course read:

    “Nor am I anti-business. I am, however, anti any business which treats its users like idiots and cynically invades their privacy.\”

    Cheers!

  5. palonek
    Palonek
    Didn’t he sell a small stake of Facebook to Microsoft? Since Google only offered some $2 Billion for it. He figures its worth 8. The concept of the site is amazing. It might be just a matter of time before Facebook begins its competition with youtube…
    [ link ]

  6. I am so proud to be Canadian, and have a voice like yours Dr. Geist to help us along this path. Woo HOO, you are awesome! Looking forward to seeing you on the Hour with George S. for sure. WAY TO GO for getting the National to cover this, as well. The better the coverage, the more it opens peoples eyes to the potential of how horrible this law “could” be. Educate, educate, educate, and let’s educate the public some more. :) Raising awareness is always a good thing.

    Thanks to everyone who wrote to the Hour to get them to cover this story. I was one of them, and got a lovely note back from the Exe. Producer of the show. A great bunch, for sure.

  7. Scott Wright says:

    Security Management Consultant
    I posted an article on my site (at [ link ]), which interprets this story from a security professional\’s point of view. Just as e-mail can be a great tool or a source of risk, social networking has the potential to do great things, or to cause misery at home or at the office. The success of the copyright protest initiative teaches us that while any powerful new tool can be risky, it\’s not enough for security professionals to simply judge it by the apparent risks. There has to be a balance.

    Security isn\’t the end objective; enabling progress and business outcomes in a reasonably safe way should be the objective. My article compares social networking to e-mail and how they both present benefits and risks that need to be managed. Thanks for making us think about it.