Digital grassroots: the Internet fights back
Yesterday, Michael Geist presented a keynote address to the IABC 2012 Canada Business Communicators’ Summit which was held in Ottawa. His topic, the year the Internet fought back, focused on how a genuine grassroots movement, fuelled by social media, impacted the Canadian Federal government’s digital copyright law.
Mr. Geist, the Canada research chair of Internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa is widely known as a newspaper columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and the Toronto Star. He’s recognized as one the world’s most influential people on the subject. He spoke eloquently for the best part of an hour (without notes!) to an audience of almost 200 public relations professionals at a downtown Ottawa hotel.
“A new copyright bill takes effect this week, and it’s much transformed (from the one originally tabled),” said Michael Geist. “It now addresses many issues that are important to consumers. People can now create mashups without fear of reprisal. The new law provides a safe harbour to those who create and also those who host that content, for example.”
It started in 2004 when a legislative committee held a series of hearings on digital copyright reform. It heard about many contentious issues from industry representatives but when the report was published, the public interest was entirely absent. The resulting bill C-60, in turn did not cover consumer issues, however it was never passed into law.
It was during the 2006 election that first signs that a grassroots movement was taking hold were spotted, according to Geist.
Controversy surrounded a fund raiser for Liberal party MP Sam Bulte, who represented the Toronto riding of Parkdale-High Park. Geist and some prominent bloggers criticized Bulte for what looked to them to be a clear conflict of interest. She was seen as one of the leading people on copyright policy, and at the same time, her riding association received contributions from the entertainment industry, artists and musicians—all of which have an interest in stricter digital copyright laws. Lobbyists from the film, music and video games industries even hosted a fund-raising dinner for Bulte in advance of the election.
The controversy, fanned by blogger activity, lead to a heated local debate with NDP candidate Peggy Nash who said she wouldn’t support the digital copyright bill as it was written at that point in time. Nash won the riding.
Geist said that this sequence of events provided “the first inkling that something might be here. This was when groups first started to come together to self-organize online.”
From then the movement grew:
- The Fair Copyright for Canada Facebook Group was launched in 2007 and soon had 90,000 members.
- Mainstream media picked up on the story. The Globe and Mail’s headline: Ottawa accused of caving in to Hollywood on copyright.
- The Federal government received more than 30,000 letters from concerned citizens.
- Hundreds of Facebook groups started cropping up indicating the issue was finding space in local communities.
- The C-61 in 61 Seconds YouTube competition invited Canadians to post a short video expressing their concerns over the bill.
- MPs reported that at town hall meetings, digital copyright law was one of the top three issues raised by constituents.
“The government took all this very seriously. It hired a public relations firm to find out how they got smoked on copyright,” explained Geist. “After conducting a study, the firm advised the government that it was time to engage with Canadians using social media tools.”
So that’s what the government did. It carried out a national online consultation in which more than 8,000 Canadians took part. Finally, the government introduced bill C-11 and it was announced by then Industry Minister Tony Clement via Twitter. This was unprecedented.
Lessons learned about online grassroots movements:
- These groups have real influence. It’s not just noise; Canadians were able to influence government policy.
- Movements tend to be distributed. There is some organization, but mostly the activity is far more distributed than orchestrated campaigns.
- Activity can be undisciplined. There is no song book. There is no one saying this is what we are going to talk about today. What’s relevant to them is what people are talking about.
- Non experts have a voice. Officials can’t say these people just don’t know what they are talking about. The expectation need not be that you need to be an expert to have your opinion heard.
- It’s evolutionary. What worked yesterday, might not work tomorrow. There are no boxes to check.
- It didn’t ‘just happen’. Digital grassroots movements been happening for a long time. But people are getting better and more sophisticated at organizing and feel more empowered to be heard. People will increasingly seek to influence policy, companies and communities.