It’s the year of the copyfight (so far)

Last year was full of protests, from Occupy to the Arab Spring, and so far 2012 has kept the rebellious spirit alive.

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(Photo: Wilhelm Degner/Wikimedia)

Could “the protester,” 2011′s “person of the year” according to Time magazine, be heading for a second title reign in 2012? If the first month and a half of this year is any indication, it sure looks like it.

This time around, it’s a little different. In 2011, the numerous uprisings in several parts of the Middle East combined with wide-scale “Occupy” protests led to a year of democratic unrest. People around the world were angry with their respective governments for one reason or another and they were no longer shy about showing it.

This year, protesters have been similarly angry, but it has been about something considerably more prosaic than fundamental democracy: copyright.

There was, of course, the mid-January protest in the United States against the Stop Online Piracy Act and related Protect Intellectual Property Act. On Jan. 18, millions of people signed online petitions against the bills, which would have given the government and entertainment companies sweeping powers to censor the Internet. The protests ultimately got the legislation killed, at least for now.

Then, just as SOPA furor began to die down, anger over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement bubbled up. Poland recently saw thousands of protesters take to the streets to express dismay over their country’s signing of the international copyright treaty, which they said has been negotiated for years in secrecy. The country has since reversed plans to ratify ACTA, with several other countries—like Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia—following suit.

Several commentators have tried make sense of it all, from various perspectives. Larry Downe wrote on Forbes that SOPA’s death was a “bitroots” populist victory by Internet users—it was “We The People” who ultimately got it struck down. Others, such as National Post columnist Terence Corcoran, cast the SOPA battle as one in which the entertainment lobby took on the technology lobby (led by Google), and lost. The people, Corcoran suggested, were unwitting pawns in a larger corporate game.

I’ve long straddled the fence on this issue: does the voice of the public matter, or is government policy simply a result of lobbyist versus lobbyist?

When it comes to telecommunications, there’s little doubt it’s the latter. The Canadian wireless spectrum auction in 2008 was a great example. While it would be nice to believe that the federal government set special rules for that auction—which ultimately enabled new cellphone companies to challenge the big three incumbents—because of a proper understanding of how abused the typical Canadian wireless subscriber was, that just wasn’t the case.

The special rules likely wouldn’t have been enacted if it weren’t for the well-connected lobbyists working for Globalive/Wind and especially Videotron parent Quebecor, both of whom were hoping to start their own wireless networks. It’s a situation that’s currently playing itself out in a rerun for the next auction, to be held this year or next.

The same goes for last year’s usage-based billing fracas. Again, the government intervened on behalf of users, but there were lobbying dollars behind it. Open Media, the activist group that led the charge against UBB, admitted it received funding from indie internet providers, the companies that stood to lose the most if the scheme was implemented. The group hasn’t yet denied (to my knowledge) that Netflix didn’t also pony up some dollars for the fight.

Would UBB have been killed if not for lobbyist dollars backing the fight? Would the public have been motivated to spontaneously rise up against it? Maybe, maybe not.

Copyright issues seem to be an entirely different beast. It’s hard to imagine how the protests in Poland and other European countries could be the work of corporate backing and indeed, in speaking with some experts on the situation, that’s the sense I get. The European protests were driven by spontaneous outrage at the powers that be.

Here in Canada, the focus is now on C-11, the copyright reform bill. As I noted in a Globe and Mail column last week, there is considerable opposition to the proposed legislation in its current form. Thousands of individuals along with a large number of groups and organizations object to the bill’s digital lock “super clause,” which would make it illegal to break a “technological protection measure” placed on content or devices. So far, their opposition has been civil and limited to politely-written letters to Members of Parliament.

The Montreal Gazette was quick to write off a protest in the city over the weekend that attracted only 40 people, proclaiming that Canadians have not been very vocal in their opposition to the proposed law. Such a statement may be premature, though. Bill C-11 hasn’t even been shuffled off to committee yet, which means it could be a few months before it gets close to becoming law. In both the SOPA and ACTA cases, the public only became motivated to act at the eleventh hour.

Moreoever, Open Media jumped into the fray on Friday with its “No Internet Lockdown” petition, which quickly garnered more than 40,000 signatures. The opposition to C-11 is only starting to become organized—and perhaps funded.

I’m curious to see how it will play out. Having covered this issue for years, it’s patently wrong to say Canadians are uninterested—I’ve seen every news story (and blog post, for that matter) that deals with copyright get massive traffic. This is clearly—and somewhat surprisingly—an issue that average people do care about.

The only question is whether this interest will manifest into the sort of spontaneous protests seen in Europe, whether an organization such as Open Media will be able to harness and focus it, or whether Canadians’ patented indifference will eventually win out, with the whole thing fizzling in the end.

With another controversial internet-related bill, known as “lawful access,” set to be introduced in Parliament this week, things are about to get a lot more interesting. The government certainly is testing its boundaries—will Canadians push back?

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