The Information Policy Blog

The (unofficial) blog of the BCLA Information Policy Committee

Tag Archives: print-disabled

access, surveillance & edward snowden

As it stands right now, there are three biggish stories going on in the information policy world right now. As is usual with the IPC, access to information is our unifying thread.

First the World Intellectual Property Organization’s treaty that wants to ensure print-disabled citizens can’t have access to materials for them. That’s going on right now. In Canada library organizations are urging Canada’s negotiating team to argue for certain positions:

  • That authorized agencies have the right to bypass a technological protection measure to make alternate format available to another authorized agency or qualified individual worldwide.
  • That the treaty not include a “commercially available” restriction on the cross border supply of alternate formats. This would have the effect of placing cumbersome, if not unworkable, requirements authorized entities and severely impede the availability of content to all, especially in underdeveloped and developing countries.
  • That cumbersome and unnecessary treaty language referencing other legislative (US fair use) or treaty (Berne’s 3 step test) regimes is unnecessary.

CULC’s full letter is available here. One of the issues with these treaties and negotiations has to do with our old friend Digital Rights Management (or TPM in Canada) and how the language of these agreements (and Canadian laws) are set up to benefit well-resourced lobbying groups even while there’s some reasonable lip-service paid. So this is an issue.

There’s also rumbling about Library and Archives Canada putting up paywalls on digitized materials. This one doesn’t have anything official out there yet, so we’ll just link to some preparatory ire.

And then thirdly there’s the big American news about the NSA keeping databases of phone calls and the program PRISM that gives the NSA access to internet companies’ information and just today Edward Snowden came forward as the leaker of that NSA information.

There’s a lot out there on these things to read. David Simon (of The Wire fame) wrote about how this PRISM thing isn’t a scandal because this is how the law works. Warrants are still necessary, and do you really want to take these tools out of law enforcement’s hands?

Frankly, I’m a bit amazed that the NSA and FBI have their shit together enough to be consistently doing what they should be doing with the vast big-data stream of electronic communication. For us, now — years into this war-footing and this legal dynamic — to loudly proclaim our indignation at the maintenance of an essential and comprehensive investigative database while at the same time insisting on a proactive response to the inevitable attempts at terrorism is as childish as it is obtuse. We want cake, we want to eat it, and we want to stay skinny and never puke up a thing. Of course we do.

Others are talking about what shoddy journalism these leaked stories are since all the tech companies are denying that they’re participating. And there’s some indication that all these companies are doing is just making the NSA’s job easier within the bounds of the law.

I have some sympathy with David Simon (and John Scalzi, for that matter) when they say that this whole thing is just how the world works and pretending to be surprised now is bullshit. Money and Power and all that. These are the laws we made to create a legal surveillance state. But that doesn’t make it right. (It’s also impossible to feel any sympathy for (and infuriating to see) a government who is trying to make itself out as the gut-wrenched victim though.)

There’ll be more coming. But one of the things to be aware of here is that even though it’s possible the only person who did anything illegal in regards to this whole NSA program is Edward Snowden for leaking it (and it is very interesting that Hong Kong is where he’s hoping to avoid being extradited; the Chinese probably have more clout on that than they were portrayed as in The Dark Knight) that’s a huge problem. We wouldn’t be able to talk about what these surveillance laws hath wrought if someone hadn’t snuck them out. This just highlights the importance of challenging and changing laws to fit the needs of citizens instead of law-enforcement and spy agencies.

Of course, it is possible to talk about these policies even without a scandal of illegality. Michael Geist has a great post (filled with links and analysis) talking about how the issues raised by PRISM apply in Canada:

Does this mean Canadian authorities are engaged in similar forms of surveillance? That phone companies such as Bell and Telus are subject to warrants similar to those faced by Verizon? That Internet companies co-operate with Canadian authorities? That Canadian and U.S. authorities share information obtained through programs such as the Verizon meta-data program or PRISM? That Canadians are targeted by the U.S. programs?

The law would suggest that all of these things are entirely possible. Given the integrated communications networks and the increased information sharing, it seems very likely. Yet since virtually everything remain shrouded in secrecy, Canadians don’t know for sure.

That “shrouded in secrecy” is the problem in all three of these issues we’re talking about today. As information professionals we need to push for more transparency in our laws. We also need to be working with organizations pushing for more privacy for individuals and more openness for governments (and other powerful organizations). This is one of those times we need to be supporting OpenMedia and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Last word for today comes from Edward Snowden:

The primary lesson from this experience was that “you can’t wait around for someone else to act. I had been looking for leaders, but I realised that leadership is about being the first to act.”

What do you think we should do?