Yesterday I attended the 3'rd BarCamp in Ottawa, this one hosted at Carleton University. This is an all-day event on Saturday that is broken into 40 minute sessions which the participants host themselves. I hosted a session on technology law activism.
I did a bit of bouncing from sessions to get a feel for more than one when there was overlap. The first session I went to was by Tony Bailetti of Carleton, talking about what he is doing around Open Source. I then started at Mike Dunleavy's session on starting a business, and then checked out the end of the OnLine Communities Panel. I started at Farzi Khazai's "software as a service", and ended at Nikhil Adnani's talk on Cognitive Wireless Networks. Mike Martin hosted a session on the future of television before lunch.
After lunch I hosted my session. One thread I had noticed at a few sessions (Cognitive Wireless, Future of Television) was that while the presenters intended to focus on technical issues, that political and legal issues were brought up by the audience as the greatest barriers. This fed directly into my talk.
Before the talk started there was someone who attended the Future of Television talk that had a proposal to avoid liability by any intermediaries that may be involved in the transmission of material: encrypt the content (specifics of proposal not repeated for space). This is a great solution if the intermediaries wanted to remain "dumb networks" where only the endpoints had the smarts (or in this case, the keys to encode/decode content). This was the core design goal of the Internet (See Wikipedia entry on End to End Principle).
The problem is that the companies providing this connectivity, especially in North America, tend to be the incumbent phone company or cable/broadcast companies. The end-to-end principle where the network operators simply route packets and do not make decisions based on the content of packets conflicts with the business models of these companies. While they could remain wilfully ignorant of the source, destination or content of any packets beyond what is absolutely necessary for basic routing, this is not what they want. The closest of the incumbent services to the Internet is the telephone companies which were at least bidirectional, but were designed the opposite to the end-to-end principle were the network had all the smarts and the terminals (telephones) were dumb. This issue often comes under the title of "Network Neutrality", but has implications far beyond that debate and touches on issues of Intermediary liability for copyright infringement, Lawful Access (online surveillance by governments/etc without warrants), and country-wide firewalls (the "Great firewall of China", Project Cleanfeed in Canada where routing to certain desinations will be secretly filtered).
The point I was trying to make is that we can't simply look at how we would like other companies to act in our best interests, or even what we might think is in their best interests, but to also look at the current economic, political and legal climate we are in. In many cases our interests and the interests of the companies providing Internet connectivity services are in direct conflict.
This flowed directly into the focus of my session which was to try to encourage technical people to get more politically involved. We can't remain by the sidelines and not communicate with policy makers (bureaucrats or elected representatives), as doing so will ensure that laws passed will work against our interests. The very things we see as the benefits of new media are seen as competitive threats to established companies, and these companies are not going to allow this new media to replace them without a fight.
I spoke about the history of the current round of digital copyright policy proposals. The simplified version of the thinking around 1994 was that if new communications technologies could be abused by private citizens, then the solution is to ensure that private citizens would not be allowed to own and/or control these technologies. I stated that the DMCA in the USA may seem bad to us, but that it is only the first stage of a general direction to revoke the ability of private citizens to participate in creativity without the permission of "professionals".
I spoke about the two petitions, and the process that they go through in parliament. I may not have made clear how these are different from simple online petitions. We are using the formal process that parliament uses, which dictates structure, and allowed a petition to be tabled in the House of Commons by a member of parliament. Once the petition has been presented, it is sent to the Government, which must table a response in the House within 45 days. Other types of petitions can't be tabled as official petitions, and are not required to be responded to by the government. It is possible to have a member of parliament talk about an unofficial petition during a debate or as part of a statement by the member, but they don't have the weight of a formal petition.
Immediately after the session someone came up to me and asked if there was more that can be done than signing the petitions. The answer is a very huge YES. While petitions are a good entry point, there are many more things that can be done. People can write letters to their members of parliament (See sample letters linked on the right-hand-column), they can join and or start associations (CLUE for Open Source folks, Online Rights Canada (ORC) for everyone), and they can work with larger groups to set up meetings with policy makers, make submissions and participate in government consultations, and so-on.
People interested in getting more involved should join our General discussion mailing list.
I am interested in hearing any feedback from the day in general, or my own session specifically. While I intended to have it be more of a round-table discussion, the number of participants lead towards more of a presentation style. I hope this turned out to be useful for the participants, and that conversations will continue.