The Information Policy Blog

The (unofficial) blog of the BCLA Information Policy Committee

Tag Archives: techdirt

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?

Access Copyright versus York – Week in Review

We’ve had a week of responses to the Access Copyright (AC) lawsuit against York University, and predictably they haven’t been very supportive of AC’s decision to defend what the Canadian Federation of Students calls “obsolete licensing agreements” and “archaic models.” Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) President Thomas Hickerson said in CARL’s statement,

Access Copyright’s action seems to question rather clear copyright law and jurisprudence, and feels very much like an attempt to intimidate universities into buying their blanket licence.

But why would AC need to be intimidating institutions into using its services? A big answer to that question comes from the Supreme Court’s 2012 decisions supporting Fair Dealing for education. It was these rulings that undermined AC’s business model by supporting a more open approach to copyright in educational matters. In those rulings, as Howard Knopf pointed out at the time:

  • Collectives cannot assume that they will be entitled to an additional “layer” of remunerated rights every time there is a new method of delivery. Technological neutrality matters.
  • The Court said what it meant and meant what is said in CCH v. LSUC in 2004 and will move forward from there – not be pushed backwards. Users have rights that must be given a “large and liberal interpretation”. Copyright doesn’t exist solely for collectives.
  • Educators are in a “symbiotic” relationship with students and the Copyright Act serves the goal of education, which includes access to essential material. “Instruction and research/private study are, in the school context, tautological.”

There’s much more at that link highlighting the kinds of things that in this lawsuit Access Copyright seems to be pretending the court did not say.

Last summer Michael Geist also took a closer look at what those Supreme Court cases meant:

Led by Justice Abella, the court has reaffirmed that fair dealing is a user’s right that must be interpreted in a broad and liberal manner. In fact, the court provides further guidance on interpreting fair dealing with an emphasis on the need for a flexible, technology-neutral approach. In reading the decisions in the Access Copyright and song previews cases, it is hard to imagine a bigger victory for education, Internet users, and innovative companies.

That victory for Fair Dealing and education in general was last year though, and maybe we’ve seen a huge amount of terrible activity at York University since then to justify lawsuits? Nope. As AC’s statement says, its “legal actions signal to institutions that we continue to strongly disagree with their interpretation of the law.” This is not a case of specific infringement, but a policy disagreement that is leading AC to spend the money it makes from its members litigating educational institutions.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) issued a letter to Access Copyright noting that AC’s lawsuit is not in the service of education:

As we have explained, the availability of new contractual models (specifically site licenses directly between content providers and academic institutions), modes of scholarly communication (Open Access publishing), and user rights (the CCH and Alberta decisions and Bill C-11) has had a profound impact on the utility of Access’s services in the post-secondary education sector. It is now clear that Access Copyright’s only plan is to try to hang on to the past. This serves no one well.

And that’s really the problem with this whole thing. Suing people/educational institutions to protect a business model is not a way to help students and scholars. In CARL’s statement Brent Roe said,

[Fair dealing] unlocks knowledge for generations of students, who are the future of innovative research. Education as fair dealing must be protected against predatory lawsuits.

That is a position that we totally support.