Columns Archive

Digital Advocacy’s “Weak Ties” Should Not Be Underestimated

Appeared in the Toronto Star on October 17, 2010 as Digital Advocacy’s “Weak Ties” Should Not Be Underestimated

Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling Canadian writer for the New Yorker, recently turned his attention to the use of Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet for digital advocacy.  Gladwell dismissed claims that digital advocacy has been an effective tool, lamenting that “people have forgotten what advocacy is about.”

He suggested that effective advocacy that leads to broad social or political change requires “strong ties” among people who are closely connected, committed to the cause, and well organized.  When Gladwell examined digital advocacy initiatives he found precisely the opposite – weak ties between people with minimal commitment and no organizational structure.

The Gladwell article was published two days after Canada, the United States, the European Union, and a handful of other countries concluded negotiations on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.  Although some issues must still be sorted out, the countries have agreed on a broad framework and announced that no further negotiation rounds are planned.

With the draft agreement now public, it is apparent that one of the biggest stories over the three-year negotiation was the willingness of the U.S. to compromise on the rules associated with the Internet.  When it first proposed the Internet chapter, the U.S. demanded new liability requirements for Internet providers (including the possibility of terminating subscriber access based on multiple allegations of infringement) as well as tough digital lock rules that went far beyond current international treaty requirements.  

The near-final version is a far cry from the initial U.S. proposal, with the Internet provider provisions removed from the treaty and the digital lock provisions rendered more flexible to accommodate the wide range of global approaches to the issue.

Several factors are likely responsible for the dramatic shift.  Unexpected political developments in Europe and the U.S. led to an aggressive European Parliament demanding greater protections for privacy and civil liberties in the agreement, while the upcoming U.S. Congressional elections may have increased pressure to conclude the agreement quickly, regardless of how imperfect it might be from a U.S. perspective.

The lack of transparency associated with the agreement may have also weakened the U.S. position, since it left negotiators unable to respond to public criticism, which steadily mounted as politicians, business, and the public grew wary of a treaty being negotiated in secret locations behind closed doors.

Contrary to Gladwell’s expectations, yet another critical factor was the role of loosely connected groups around the world who used the Internet to raise awareness with the public, politicians, and the media.  Unlike many advocacy efforts in this field that are limited to domestic or local activities, non-governmental groups from the U.S., Europe, New Zealand, and Canada worked in parallel to turn ACTA into a political hot potato.

Their work was supported by dozens of academics, university clinics, activists, and interested individuals around the world, who published papers, blog posts, and tweets on ACTA and its potential effects.  Concerned citizens took that information and created wikis to allow for further analysis or translated the materials into Spanish, French, and other local languages.

The steady stream of information about ACTA took a relatively obscure issue and gradually moved it onto the political radar screen, leading to Parliamentary hearings in Europe and uncomfortable questions in many national legislatures (including Canada’s House of Commons).

While digital advocacy alone was not responsible for these efforts, it played a crucial role, providing instant dissemination of leaked documents and expert analysis.  The battle over ACTA may not be the equivalent of the fight for civil rights in the 1960’s, but the relative success in changing the terms of the agreement that was a top U.S. priority demonstrates the power of digital advocacy and the potential for weak ties and loosely organized groups to come together to influence global policy.

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 or online at

One Comment

  1. acta, avro arrow pt 2
    weak ties are all that are necessary. ie: speed-trap warnings, etc.
    (old school flashers, right?)

    acta is the avro arrow part two: (The conservatives, in a fit of stupidty two weeks after sputnik, took chainsaws to the world’s FIRST suipersonic jet and exported the pieces stateside. Howard huges became the world’s richest man developing the tech)

    the one click patent etc (patent just allowed here in canada) will DRAIN the economy.. Much the same way xerox fees are bleeding schools, universities.)

    the extensions to property (locks, liseces, libel suits)
    are imaginary, bad law and the biggest land grab since newfoundland lost 25% of it’s territory for a road never built

    throttling, censorship and filtering are beimng used to repress politics, businesses (yes, like netflicks and online pharama),
    and news. (enjoy the latest UFO scare.. and think of the children)

    meanwhile, back at the hill, harper, playing musical chairs on the security council, gets dumped by Portugal.

    there is a hint in all this.

    each machine on the web COULD be a website… but it’s more profitable to sell THAT as a separate service.

    ditto local gig/s service. THAT would kill cable TV.

    regulatory capture, indeed. it’s corporate rule.


    (is this a dupe comment?)