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Lessons Learned

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Tuesday January 24, 2006
The Bulte story is generating considerable media attention today (Canadian Press, Globeandmail.com, IT Business) as the "bloggers influence the election" angle is an attractive one.  This obviously continues the theme from last week when Macleans, Toronto Star, National Post, and Globe and Mail all discussed the same issue (as did Rob Hyndman in an excellent post).  While the blogger issue should be highlighted, we should not lose sight of the substance behind the Bulte story.

Examining the role of blogs is unquestionably interesting and important.  It is difficult to quantify, but I'm fairly confident that the online community had a real impact in Parkdale High-Park (although I again hasten to add that without a strong candidate running against Bulte this definitely would not have happened).  The voting shift was fairly significant given that this was a rematch of the 2004 election and no other Toronto riding in similar circumstances experienced quite as dramatic a move toward the NDP.  This suggests that some new - potentially the copyright issue - played a role. 

Moreover, from a distance it appeared that the copyright questions had an impact on Bulte's effectiveness on the campaign trail.  When she first faced the issue, she focused on transparency and characterized my claims as "egregious."  I have the sense that it went downhill from there as she soon jumped to the infamous "pro-user zealot" remark, the claim that it wasn't a fundraiser, the threat to sue, and then finally last night strangely responding to her defeat by stating that she "had no thoughts", she didn't care about a minority government, and that "according to everybody, I did nothing."

I should also note that the way the story spread through the blogosphere - with high traffic blogs and sites such as BoingBoing, Larry Lessig, and Bourque; local blogs such as the Accordion Guy and Ross Radar; law blogs such as Rob Hyndman and Copyright Watch; political blogs such as Progressive Bloggers; industry blogs such as Quill and Quire; mainstream media blogs such as Dan Cook (Globe and Mail), Antonia Zerbisias (Toronto Star), Colby Cosh (Macleans), and the CBC's Election Blog; online news sites such as P2Pnet.net and ZDNet; along with dozens of other blogs and chat boards tells us a lot about how stories propagate online.  Further, the distribution of video, audio, parodies, bumper stickers, and a petition are all a fascinating part of the Internet story.

But they are not the most important part of the story.  More important than the story about blogs, is the substantive lessons to be learned from the past three weeks.  Building on a copyrightwatch post that mines the same theme, I offer three:

First, the recent events send a clear message that Canadians want copyright policy (and indeed all policy making) to be both fair and to be seen to be fair.  That means accounting for all stakeholders and removing the lobbyist influence from the equation.  My article on the role of the lobby groups in the copyright process attracted considerable interest as many people expressed surprise at just how badly the system is broken.  It was this message that resonated with many people in the riding who may know little about copyright policy, but can identify a perceived conflict of interest when they see one.  Going forward, all parties must work to clean up copyright.

Second, among the most important voices in the debate came from artists such as Matthew Good, Steven Page, and Neil Leyton.  As groups such as CRIA were rightly identified as lobbyists who represent predominantly foreign interests, Canadian artists and Canadian interests began to speak up.  If (or more likely when) a new copyright bill comes to committee, it will be incumbent on Canada's politicians to hear not only from the lobby groups, but also from the creators and users, many of whom are singing a much different tune from the lobbyists.

Third, this could have been about any issue, but it wasn't.  It was about copyright.  Copyright is often described as a fringe issue, yet to millions of Canadians it has an enormous impact on their daily lives, affecting education, culture, creativity, the use of personal property, privacy, and security.  Labeling those concerned with these issues as pro-user zealots or claiming that this is merely about music downloading is to miss a much bigger story and to fail to connect with a segment of the population. 

Six thousand votes, the shift in Parkdale-High Park, may not sound like much, but last night it would have been enough to alter the outcome of 123 ridings across Canada.  Politicians should keep that in mind when the copyright issue once again takes centre stage.

Update: Noteworthy takes a closer look at voter turnout in Parkdale-High Park, while the Toronto Star runs a very favourable farewell article to Sam Bulte.

Update II: The Law Times has published another review of the Bulte story that includes some discussion of what may lie ahead.
Comments (9)add comment

loser said:

...
I am sure the online community had some effect in the swing away from the Liberal candidate. But I don't think it could have been at all significant. It's more likely that people just voted against Bulte because she was a not particularly well known or important Liberal (copyright reform is pretty much off the general public's radar), and people thought the NDP would be a good safe bet, and wanted to nebulously punish the Liberals, without voting conservative. It just followed the (surreal) theme that this election wasn't truly about the policies of any party, without (at least publicly discussed) any actual consequences.

Next election (undoubtedly soon) will be about the actual issues. Copyright reform might be on the agenda, if it isn't dealt with in this parliament.

Geist should think about whether it will be dealt with in this parliament. Quite honestly, it may have a good chance of being dealt with because this issue (despite the passions of Geist and many others on IP and internet laws) likely won't produce any kind of rancour among parliamentarians, let alone the general public, and a passage of some sort of WIPO implementation bill will give the appearance of a working parliament, in the likely absence of issues traditionally seen as being of greater public import being debated.

That would be bad news. If parties want to be seen as 'working together' on an issue, that may well preclude real debate the issue that could degenerate into actual arguments with conflicting positions. I can easily picture all the leaders standing before waving Canadian flags, celebrating their protection of Canadian culture, while joining a worldwide treaty. Perfect feel-good post election pablum to feed disenchanted voters.
January 25, 2006

JC said:

I would have to agree
I have trouble believing that the "blogsphere" had a major impact on the voting. Although this is clearly anecdotal, I was the only one of my neighbours who seemed aware of the online commentary.

Copyright reform was not a hot topic in any political discussion I had; the people I talked to in Parkdale were more interested in childcare and (sadly imho) the GST reduction.

Although I do wholeheartedly agree with Michael about the importance of the appearance of impartiality in the government (That fund raiser was very poorly thought out I think), and I respectfully disagree with a lot of his specific views on copyright reform, neither had a signifigant impact on my vote; I was an NDP supporter before this controversy and I was pleased to vote for Peggy Nash this election despite not really agreeing with her quickly manufactured response to the "copyright controversy".
January 25, 2006

mhaman said:

...
I voted Liberal for the last 25 years, but swithced to NDP due to the continuous string of issues the LIberal party was involved in. The final one was the Bulte affair, her loud and sharp words combined with no others from the Liberal party. They weren't listening to something that is important to me, and blogs are were I went to get information. It had a big impact on the type and scope of information available to me.
January 25, 2006

Russell McOrmond said:

Don\'t focus on the word BLOG
There are people having a hard time believing that BLOGS had an influence. Forget about the medium, or that specific term, and focus on what it really is: yet another way for citizens to communicate with each other and exchange ideas.

That local conversations happen (in coffee shops or elsewhere) separate from the mainstream media push of what they thought was interesting from the national campaign is nothing new.

What is new: the speed that conversations can happen, the multimedia nature (audio, video from events -- not just the person you are speaking with), and the fact that subject area experts from other geographic regions can weigh in.

While I don't live in Toronto I did make two political donations in this campaign: one to help independent creator Charlie Angus return to parliament, and one to help Peggy Nash give Bulte the boot.

I also attended a debate in Parkdale High-park, already being fully aware of what had happened in earlier debates.

In the pre-Internet world I wouldn't even have known about these issues. I don't think the term BLOGS matters much, but that the Internet is critically important to the conversation between Canadian Citizens seems so obvious to me that it's hard to believe anyone could debate it.

Blogger on http://digital-copyright.ca
January 25, 2006

DC said:

...
The Blogs by Canadian musicians themselves are particularly significant to me. May be the above posters should read Mathew Good's Blog (former Juno Award winner) and Steven Page of Barenaked Ladies. Both Blogs have commentary about the CRIA and promoters of Bill C-60 copyright amendment not helping Canadian artists and creators at all.

Public interests were ignored by Bulte altogether. In light of this fact, Blogs by public are also significant, because the Govenment does not consult with public interests in any other meaningful way. It was just the opposite they were taking $85,000 to enforce the agenda of Big Music. Even industry committees were told to shut up and go away, it was set in stone
that Bulte was going to enact Hollywood style copyright.

Bev Oda will also cater to foriegn-interest Big Music ONLY. The Government is not interested in allowing public voice.
In that sense the Blog is mightier than the Sword, because the only avenue of public discussion is the Blog.

January 26, 2006

Rob Cottingham said:

An impact, but an indirect one
I doubt more than a handful of voters walked into the polling station determined to vote on the basis of copyright reform... but that doesn't mean the issue, and the blogs that fed it, didn't have an impact.

Ethics were a key issue in this campaign, and that was where Bulte was at her most vulnerable. Voters might have found the substance of the policies she advanced complex, arcane and hard to understand; but an MP putting the interests of large corporate donors ahead of the those of the people she represented -- that had resonance.

And her reaction to criticism -- defensive, dissembling and disproportionate -- only served to support the accusation that the Liberals were mired in a culture of entitlement.

The copyright issue itself didn't lay her low, but it exposed two things that voters found ugly:

The inordinate influence that lobbyists were gaining through Hollywood's MP. And the way that MP reacted under fire.
January 26, 2006

bigpicture said:

So Hard To Get Involved
In theory the internet has the capacity to facilitate a more appropriate form of democracy. But I have not seen it used much for this yet.

Sure we vote for government representatives, whom we think will represent our interests, but mostly end up representing special interests or themselves. For this not to happen their job should always be on the line, just like the regular citizen.

Also for the regular citizen to be involved and make sure that they are heard, is just so much effort, and made so difficult, that most don't bother. But the special interests and lobbyists don't take this approach.

Surely the technology for easy plebiscite is already here, or if not soon to be here. Then the politicians do not vote on the important issues, but present alternate or several proposed solutions for people to internet vote on. And also present these in a format that is easy for the regular citizen to follow and to understand. This would render lobbyists and special interest groups obsolete, because they could not easily buy votes and political favours. And enable people to meaningfully participate in their own governance.

But I suppose unless this arrives some day, that blogging is the best way to make the elected accountable.
January 28, 2006

court said:

wow!
"Copyright is often described as a fringe issue, yet to millions of Canadians it has an enormous impact on their daily lives, affecting education, culture, creativity, the use of personal property, privacy, and security."

You completely summed up my viewpoint about copyright protection in that one statement.

I am currently researching an essay and something I am noticing is how quiet gamming companies are being in relation to downloading. It intrigues me that the Canadian arm of the RIAA and MPAA (CIAA & MPAC?) are failling about in a bid to control their market/ profits while the video gamming industry has been relatively quiet about the whole issue. Video games are still making a lot of profit (and possibly increasing) compared to the declining markets of music and movies. Research and articles are hard to come by but this one was really interesting:

http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20011017/dodd_pfv.htm
January 30, 2006

Stuart MacDonald said:

...
I really think that, despite all the thrash that this situation caused, you'd be hard pressed to say that this is somehow a rallying cry to action on copyright. For most people, if they became aware of the issue, it was seen as worth considering in their voting choice because of the optics of the fundraiser -- that a politician was seemingly putting herself too close to one side of a battle that she was officiating. If it had been any other politician and any other "side," most people would have felt the same way. The fact that it was a topic that is near and dear to many online "information wants to be free" types certainly drove the bloggerage and spun up interest, but saying that this *really* has anything to do with copyright for most people would be a serious stretch.

-- Stuart

http://stuartmacdonald.ca
January 30, 2006

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