Opinion: On Politics, Digital Rights, and Technology

One of the constants in debates surrounding technology and digital rights is politics. Drew Wilson talks about it broadly.

“Technology news was so much better when it wasn’t so political.” This is probably one of the earliest criticisms I’ve ever had about my work in news. I got it around 2006 when the file-sharing debates made it across the US border and seeped into Canada with the Canadian DMCA debates. It’s probably a riff on the even longer running trope of “back in the good old days.” I could sense the frustration among some of the then-long time readers at the time. People like me were somehow bringing politics into the debate.

The anxiety surrounding the bringing on of politics wasn’t entirely without merit, either. File-sharing was becoming mainstream and it was bringing the attention of the corporate world as well as the political system. File-sharing wasn’t exactly an activity you wanted to attract a whole lot of attention, either. Arguably, it was probably the Fight Club of the early 2000’s. Sure, you could tell people about it who could actively contribute to it, but otherwise, don’t tell anyone else about it as it’s the heavily guarded secret of the internet. One part of the file-sharing movement where this was very pervasive was the world of News Groups. Do not talk about News Groups and keep the technological knowledge floor at a certain level to keep the riff-raff out. A bigger example would be The Scene itself where they really don’t want just any random person joining in on their party.

Of course, there was one major problem with trying to “keep the politics out” of file-sharing: it was already political long before I had arrived on the scene. The fact that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) became law in 1998. At the time, people were writing “Download Napster” in the snow. File-sharing wasn’t just a quick way to find free music, but it was also a rebuff of the system that simply refused to believe that we were in the midst of a technological revolution in the world of music, TV, gaming, and film. By the time I was on the writing scene, it was already quite political.

What would it look like to “keep the politics out” look like in the first place? News articles that cover file-sharing app change logs and different advances in technology and software. To a good extent, I was also doing this when I wrote articles like using file-sharing to get in shape or interviewing players in the file-sharing scene. The simple truth is that the whole scene was transitioning from general tech talk to a world where politics and technology would become intertwined at the time. I was actually hitting the ground running in adapting to this changing reality, a sort of “change your business model” to adapt to the modern reality if you will. Nice first year for me, eh?

The simple truth was that people like me weren’t “bringing politics” into the file-sharing world, politics was coming for the file-sharing world and morphing it into the “file-sharing debates” that would define late 2005 to the 2010’s. Political parties were bringing in terrible copyright reform, blanket anti-circumvention laws, three strike laws, anti-encryption laws, surveillance laws, and others. Blaming the writer for bringing all of that into the debates is simply an exercise in shooting the messenger. The real question was whether the technology world was going to respond to this or not. The laws are coming, will the technology world fight back or not? We most assuredly had that answer with the SOPA protests to name one example.

Understandably, though, some simply didn’t want anything to do with the “political” debates of today and left what is now the digital rights news scene altogether. Entering into such territory would mean that you are now subject to the various changes in winds of politics. Whether it is blowing one direction or another, unless you devolve into a political hack for one party or another, you are going to get the cr@p from both sides.

Those who saw that coming were not wrong.

As time went on, people like me were subject to political labelling of whatever happened to be politically convenient for whoever was in power at the time. In Canada, I was more or less cast as a Conservative simply because I was criticizing the Paul Martin government for pushing the Canadian DMCA (Copyright reform) and Lawful Access (warrantless wiretapping). When the Harper Conservatives took power, I was basically labelled as a dirty Liberal because I criticized the Conservatives for also pushing the Canadian DMCA and Lawful Access legislation. I still remember mentally noting at the time how funny it was that spying on your every communication was only OK when your preferred political party happens to be pushing a law allowing it.

Then came the Trudeau Liberal government. Indeed, in the early days, there was reason for optimism. There was a push for privacy reform, strengthening network neutrality, and whatever the heck this “digital charter” was. It seemed, at the time, one political party finally smartened up and started thinking of good laws for a change. Of course, the mid 2010’s and this attitude didn’t last long. Barely two years later and the government started pushing truly awful bills. This is, of course, the famed three pronged legislative agenda of social media censorship (Bill C-11), link taxes (Bill C-18), and Online Harms (still forthcoming, mercifully). It didn’t take a whole lot of time to be considered a right wing nut job for my criticisms.

If there is one criticism that gets me rolling my eyes a lot these days, it’s the concept that reporters and experts have “changed” somehow. A lot of this seems to be rooted in the misperception that people like us were somehow “Liberal” before and that we had somehow gone off the deep end and went full right wing extremists.

The simple truth in the matter is that we aren’t the ones that changed. There is one constant we have had throughout the decades, and that’s assessing legislation on its merits and determining if it’s a good bill or not. Paul Martin’s Copyright Reform bill was a bad bill. Stephen Harper’s Lawful Access bill was a bad bill. Justin Trudeau’s social media censorship bill and link tax bill were bad bills. We examined the laws, offered out expert analysis, and concluded that those efforts should be shelved because of the immense harm they would inflict on people’s every day lives as people grow more dependent on the world of digital technology.

So, what did change? The government. If you want to know what is changing, that’s where you should be pointing your finger at. Justin Trudeau could have pushed for meaningful privacy reform, the Digital Charter, access to high speed internet in rural and indigenous communities, increasing competition in the wireless and internet sector, and more. Believe me, journalists and experts would be more than happy to heap praise on the current government if they did that. The problem is, Trudeau largely abandoned this in favour of whoever was shovelling briefcases full of cash in his direction. That’s how we got to where we are today. If the government wants to assign blame for the situation, all they need to do is look in the mirror.

The simple truth is that if the government pushes good bills, people like us would be happy. We don’t care who happens to be in power, so long as positive change happens.

As it turns out, this problem of hyperpartisanship is nothing really new. While people like me in the digital and tech space are starting to get a good grasp of taking the heat of the wrath of both sides of the political aisle, the world of academia has had this issue for much, much longer. From Philippe Lagassé:

Ten years on, the critique is coming from the other side of the aisle. The past couple of weeks have seen renewed debate about who gets to govern after an election. As per usual, my take on these questions is academic. I’ve offered my analysis of how the constitution operates. I’ve offered my assessment of how constitutional conventions differ from other types of unwritten rules, such as customs and practices. Most importantly, I’ve tried to stick to my lane, explaining the how the constitutional side of this equation might interact with the political one.

Right-leaning commentators have responded that academics are a bunch of pendants and left-wing shills who are trying to prevent the Conservatives from forming government.

Are the comments me and other profs make about constitutional rules pedantic? Well, yeah. That’s our job. I wear the pedantic label proudly.

Are we left-wing shills plotting to keep the Conservatives out of power? I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I find that charge both amusing and disconcerting.

It’s amusing because, in the Harper years, I was accused of being a Conservative hack for defending the government on various issues. The truth is that I tend to be sympathetic to the executive and constitutional formalism, in general, regardless of party.

But what makes this line of critique disconcerting is that it’s making it harder to have good faith discussions with partisans. I don’t claim to be a political strategist or partisan advisor. I don’t bring any political experience to these discussions, nor do I claim to. I gladly differ to those with that expertise and knowledge when it comes the political side of these types of questions. All I bring is my academic ‘fiddling’ these debates. And I fully understand why an academic perspective might be dismissed as irrelevant or out of touch, as a result. Is it really necessary, though, to cast academic analyses as ideological disagreements, or to think there’s a scholarly plot afoot, if our views don’t align with partisan objectives? Is it not possible to simply conclude that we’re looking at things differently based on different perspectives?

Arguably, the situation is worse now than it was before. While political attacks from politicians are nothing new, what is new is that “unbiased” news reporting from the “professional” mainstream media has also jumped on board in the partisan bandwagon in recent years. There’s no shortage of news articles that loudly proclaim that anyone who is against Bill C-11 or Bill C-18 are just “Conservatives” or “Conservatives in bed with Big Tech”. That is bad enough, but lacing the coverage with the outright disinformation of “Bill C-18 is designed to require web giants to compensate journalism publications for reposting their content” or Big Tech is blocking Canadians from accessing journalism made the blatant biased journalism all the more damning.

Bill C-11 is destined to screw over digital first creators who have made a living publishing video content on social media. Bill C-18 is destined to wreak absolute havoc and destruction in the world of journalism. The outcomes of these bills can be distressing enough to make you want to puke. The anxiety spreading across both the media landscape as well as the world of digital first creators has ultimately proven the point that nothing good is set to come out of any of this. It is especially true for digital first creators as people across all political stripes are witnessing a direct threat to their livelihoods.

Indeed, partisans using these criticisms to score political points was always going to be a thing. That is just something people like us have to accept. If it means stopping bad bills from coming to fruition, then it is sort of a win anyway. I mean, it would have been preferred to stop a bill dead in its tracks because of its merits – specifically the lack of its merits, but people like us end up being few and far between in the first place. We simply don’t have the numbers to make a huge political impact quite like the partisans. All we can do is just continue to do our important work and take whatever vitriol that is destined to come our way. Little wonder why so few writers want to even bother with any of this, but I’ll continue to take one for the team on this one.

Of course, this constant of being subject to the attacks from the two biggest political sides just because of our criticisms of bad tech policy isn’t just uniquely my perspective. University professor, Michael Geist has recently been vocal about this as well:

Important post that rings very true. When I was criticizing copyright or lawful access under Harper, I was called a Liberal. When I criticize Bill C-11 or C-18, I’m called a Conservative.

This isn’t the first time he brought this up, but it is certainly the most recent comments he’s made about this.

I do remember one exchange where, a member of the Conservative Party while Harper was in Power (I forgot who it was) bemoaning that people are saying how people are criticizing his bill because people don’t like one clause or another. Charlie Angus of the NDP, at the time, responded by saying how that is called ‘doing his job’. It’s an exchange that still brings a smile to my face, but criticizing bills for the clauses is exactly how you should criticize a bill you don’t like. It’s what I’ve done all along and Bill C-11 and Bill C-18 are no exceptions to that throughout the lawmaking process.

When government simply has no answers to the criticisms and just dismissing people like us as just political shills, it’s frustrating. It’s doubly frustrating when the legislation is rammed through the process like what we saw with Bill C-11 and Bill C-18 at the same time. All people like us can do is take solace in knowing that when what we projected would happen actually happens, well, we can say that we were never wrong with what we warned about – whatever silver lining that ends up being in the grand scheme of things.

Personally, I think we would all be better off if legislation was debated based on its merits and the actual text itself. It would certainly make the lives of those who are more interested in how bills work better. Not the “Conservative shill”, “dirty Liberal”, “paid off by Big Tech” labels others have been trying to slap on us all of the time. Sadly, as partisanship continues to go through the roof (and it is sad that Liberals are just as susceptible to this as Conservatives despite what they saw with Trump), this may be too much to ask for. All we can do is just continue providing the objective truth and take whatever political lumps we get.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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