Last night I attended a meeting called the "Community Council on Federal Issues," hosted by Gerard Kennedy, Liberal Member of Parliament for Parkdale-High Park and my Federal elected representative. I didn't vote for him; never mind whether I would have, I was living in a different city at the time of the last election. Apparently he holds these meetings periodically as a way of keeping in touch with constituents; this one in particular was advertised as having a focus issue of "Locked out? New Federal copyright laws and you," which was what drew my interest. I didn't take notes and don't plan to report on the entire meeting, but will cover a few points of interest to me.
On the big issue, of Bill C-32, he presented a brief and pretty much accurate summary of the Bill and opposition to it, focusing on the DRM provisions (which people are calling "digital locks"; I prefer the older term). He seemed to have read the Bill, at least, though wasn't intimately familiar with its details. It's a good sign that he chose to advertise it as the focus of this meeting. His position generally seemed to be against DRM - which was also the unanimous opinion of those in the audience who expressed opinions. There were several who identified themselves as "artists" and expressed concern about protecting their creative work, but their view of DRM seemed to be curiosity rather than support. Most audience members, to be honest, didn't seem all that interested in copyright, and it didn't help that many of the audience members who did care chose to use very technical language that made it opaque why anyone not already a computer geek, should care. That's an important lesson for our side, kids: we must suit the message to the audience, and at a meeting like this one, the audience isn't just the Member, whom we can address in lots of other ways.
I got in one of the first questions on copyright (actually, the first in the part of the meeting designated for copyright, though copyright issues had come up a couple times earlier), and I asked Kennedy point-blank whether a Liberal government would remove protection (or not create it in the first place) for DRM. He made affirmative noises, but did not give a clear, definite yes or no. I pointed out that the Liberals did in fact attempt to protect DRM when they were the Government (in 2005, with Bill C-60, though I didn't have the details there in the meeting) and he acknowledged that that had happened.
I think what we're seeing there is party discipline: Kennedy can't make a promise binding on the Liberal Party, and it would be very difficult for him to promise even just for himself that he would oppose something that might turn out to be the party line he'd have to toe. That is the Faustian position of party-aligned MPs in Canada, and a strong argument for some reforms in our general system. I'm sure it's also a general politician's reflex not to ever say yes or no to anything if it's possible to say "maybe" and hope that all listeners will hear it as whichever of "yes" or "no" they would prefer.
I found some of the questions interesting. I had the impression there were a lot of poor, elderly, and/or disabled persons in attendance, and they were very interested in simple access issues. Internet access costs too much! Bandwidth caps mean we can't use it! And so on. One fellow started to bring up some fairly complicated issues of net neutrality, about which I'm of two minds: yes, net neutrality is important and we'd better face it some day soon, but no, it's not really in Bill C-32, and I was loath to get into a big discussion of what I think about net neutrality right there in the meeting where we could be making points about the immediate threat of C-32. However, there may be some percentage in pointing out the connections that may exist between the net neutrality issue and the DRM issue. Both are access issues; and ordinary non-techie people, at least the crowd I saw last night, have a pretty clear idea of why access issues really matter.
Oddly, even though there was a lot of griping about the price of Internet access, I didn't hear much griping about the price of recorded music and video (which, here on the Net, is often used as a justification for copying them). That may be a good sign: everyone there got that DRM is not about copying. The other side wants us all to think DRM is about copying, because their case looks stronger when stated in terms of copying, but DRM is (for ordinary people) about access, not copying, and we need to keep it framed that way. It's much harder to tell purchasers that they shouldn't have access to their property, than that they shouldn't copy it.
ETA: I meant to say this in the initial posting but forgot: In answer to my point about the previous rounds of consultation having been ignored, Kennedy offered the view that the previous rounds of copyright reform bills had been written to satisfy Quebec creators' groups (whether those groups know what's good for them or not, they at least know what they think they want). I think it's true (this was evident for instance in the discussions when I went to Ottawa circa 2001) that Quebec creators' groups have a strong voice and more inclination to demand draconian copyright expansion than English-speaking creators' groups. In Ottawa I heard people explicitly deny, in French, the idea that a balance of creators' and users' rights was appropriate at all, they wanted it to be about creators' rights alone; only Access Copyright dared to say such a thing in the English-language debates. I don't know if it was the Quebec creators' groups voices that tipped the balance, but it was interesting that that was what Kennedy put forward as a significant causal factor for the way things unfolded in previous rounds.
There were a number of questions put to Kennedy on his voting record. One fellow who claimed to be representing Amnesty International (an organization I used to support, but don't anymore because of their use of "clipboard kid" solicitation) pressed him pretty hard on voting for Bill C-2, about implementing a free trade agreement between Canada and Colombia while not using that agreement to demand human rights concessions from the Colombian government. I have mixed feelings about that: I generally think that Canada should pressure other governments around the world on human rights. However, I'm worried about using trade agreements to do that - as I said in the meeting (where it was acknowledged, but didn't become a big discussion) that's exactly how the USA is pressuring many countries including Canada to implement protection of DRM. Plenty of people on the other side will tell you that protection of DRM is a "human rights" issue. I didn't say it then, but plenty more will tell you that abortion is a "human right" too, and insist that that ought to be in trade agreements. I'm really worried about knowing where to draw the line on how far it's okay to use trade agreements to dictate terms to other countries; saying "human rights" is a good enough excuse just means that everybody will phrase their interests in terms of human rights.
The position Kennedy expressed was a fair bit less potentially inflammatory than what I just said: first, he claimed that he had not, in fact, voted for C-2 but abstained after getting permission to do so from his party. The Parliamentary Web site's voting record does bear that out. I'm not sure, though, that I'd agree with his characterization (repeated in his printed newsletter) of that as a vote "against" the Bill; no, it was an abstention, neither a vote for nor against. It highlights the party discipline thing again: he needed permission even to abstain, and it's pretty unlikely that he had any possibility of getting permission to vote against it for real. Anyway, he also described the view that it's better to make a free trade agreement with some human rights provisions, even if they are weak, and then have some power to change things in Colombia, than to walk away from the table entirely and have no power there at all. He put that forward for why his caucus had in general supported the Bill, even if he himself hadn't found it convincing.
Other issues: Kennedy mentioned that "of course" he supported the Government's Bill C-22, which creates an obligation on Internet providers to report suspected child pornography. Well, that shouldn't be an "of course" - we should be very suspicious of any cause so good that it's beyond question - but it's understandable why he would say it. For my part, I note that Bill C-22 covers fictional material. Bans on the mere possession of fictional material are unacceptable to me, period. But last night's meeting wasn't a context where we could have a nuanced discussion of those kinds of issues, so I saved that thought to post right here. How amusing would it be if C-22 passed and
Strikethrough 2007 happened again right here?
Note that there are people - including friends-of-friends of mine - who would think that that scenario would be amusing enough that they would deliberately attempt to cause it just "4 teh lulz," while attempting to cloak their juvenile trolling in an air of "we're ridding the Net of potential predators!" respectability; and some of the people who've left Livejournal have fled to Canadian systems thinking that doing so would keep them safe. Note that Bill C-22 contains specific provisions saying that if someone reports you to an ISP as a suspected child pornographer, the ISP is not only required to forward the report upstream - and in some cases to semi-accountable private organizations rather than the actual police - but also not to tell you. Teh opportunities 4 lulz should be obvious.
Kennedy mentioned opposing the Government's initiative against Karla Homolka's eligibility to apply for a pardon, and good for him. I haven't been following the Homolka situation carefully but it sure looks like a classic example of hard cases making bad law: certain people would eviscerate the checks and balances of our legal system just because they're so anxious to be seen as showing a proper level of moral outrage at Homolka's crimes. (See also Sharpe.) Mentioned in the same segment were the current initiatives against "two-for-one sentencing"; that is, the longstanding rule that time already served while a person awaits trial should count double against their sentence once convicted. Kennedy spoke against those initiatives (that is, in favour of keeping the two-for-one rule) but a bit clumsily. He left the impression that the reasons for it were to save money, and because conditions in the Don Jail and places like it are worse than in other institutions.
I think by far the most important reason for the two-for-one rule is to give prosecutors an incentive to protect everyone's right to a speedy trial. A person incarcerated waiting for trial must be treated as innocent, both as a principle of the system and because many of them factually are innocent and will end up being acquitted. We don't have any real way to compensate the ones who were falsely accused and falsely imprisoned waiting for a trial that cleared them. We need to keep the system honest about not imprisoning people before trial any more than is really necessary, and the two-for-one rule is an important part of keeping the system honest on that point. This rule is not about protecting the guilty, it's about protecting the innocent, though I hasten to add that protecting the guilty is also something we must do.
One final thing to mention: someone asked Kennedy if there were truth to the rumours that he's a contender for leader of the Liberal Party. He first gave a disclaimer that this meeting was supposed to be non-partisan and he didn't want to go into internal affairs of the party, but he also gave a very typical politician's not-really-an-answer, saying that he and all his caucus were committed to making their leader Prime Minister of Canada and that their current leader was Michael Ignatieff, but conspicuously not saying anything about how long Ignatieff was or was not likely to remain leader nor anything about what he himself might do at such time as Ignatieff was no longer leader. I'm inclined not to read anything into that at all; it's pretty much what any politician would say.
So in summary: not a lot of hard content, and certainly no hard promises, but it's clear that this MP is at least aware of public opinion on Bill C-32. It remains to be seen how his party will treat the issues. So far I'm not really seeing the will on their part to make a big deal of it. Just this morning I got a paper-mail response from Michael Ignatieff's office to my earlier mail on C-32. It notably doesn't say much. The only specific thing said is that Canadians should have the right to transfer purchased content from CD or DVD to devices like iPods, provided it is for non-commercial purposes. That, of course, doesn't go nearly far enough to touch the DRM issues that we all care about, let alone the many other fair dealing points under discussion. I'm inclined to think that although we can probably count on Gerard Kennedy to take our concerns into his caucus, we can't really count on the Liberals to make a big deal of it against the Conservatives, nor on him to make a big deal of it against the Liberal consensus.
Beyond that my general impression of Kennedy is favourable, and although I probably won't be a constituent of his much longer simply because of a likely relocation, I think I could have done a lot worse in terms of who my representative for the moment might have been.