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Cory Doctorow's Dystopian Future of Canadian Copyright

'Pirate Cinema' author on the 'human rights disaster' of disconnection, and whether we're immune.

Ariel Fournier 20 Oct

Ariel Fournier is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver.

A shadowy board of figures is trying to keep you from accessing the Internet. Not just in the dystopic future, but right now.

A recent look at the Trans Pacific Partnership reveals that private negotiations are already underway to deny access to Internet users accused of copyright infringement.

Cory Doctorow, the online activist and sci-fi author, imagines what that world looks like to a British teenager in the not-so distant, not-so-different future in his new young adult novel Pirate Cinema. Like all of Doctorow's novels, the book is available for free through a Creative Commons license.

In the book, Trent McCauley is a 16-year-old who remixes (copyrighted) movies into his own creations, which lead police to crack down and cut off his entire family from their Internet. In the spirit of a good young cyberpunk, McCauley runs away and joins a gang of activist/artists in London. But running away does not mean he escapes Big Brother, and more trouble follows.

If this sounds suspiciously familiar, it might be because similar laws have passed in the U.K. and abroad, and similar teenagers exist around the world.

"I don't think science fiction books are good predictors of the future," Doctorow explains. "What they're really good at is reflecting the present."

Amid his busy schedule of writing a column for the Guardian and maintaining the ever popular Boing Boing site which he co-founded, this weekend the Canadian author living in London makes a stop on his book tour in B.C. at the 25th annual Vancouver Writers Fest. He is back in town to speak with sci-fi buddy William Gibson on Saturday ("I don't want to paint us as BFFs, but I'm a great admirer of his work and we get along really well") and to speculate "What if?" with other sci-fi writers at a sold out event.

Doctorow spoke with the Tyee about Canada's problematic copyright policies, and what the harm is in hiding copyright protections from users. He also talked about Bill C-11 and and the worries around digital locks, or software embedded in digital media to restrict usage.

The gist of his argument: "Nobody woke up this morning and said, 'I really wish there was a way that I could enjoy my music with fewer rights.'"

On how science fiction can 'diagnose' reality:

"When you go to the doctor with a sore throat, she'll take a swab and she'll put it in a petri dish and she'll leave it over the weekend so it grows into something big enough to diagnose. What science fiction can do is take a single technology, or a single technological policy, and make a thought experiment world out of it, where that one policy is the single totalizing force -- not because that is necessarily the world to come, but because that's a way of diagnosing how this policy or technology operates in the world today. It's a way of making it visible -- making it reproduce to the point where the colony can be inspected with the naked eye."

On the 'exciting' prospect of arguing with teenagers:

"When you meet with young people who have read your books they have strong opinions about them -- and it's not because they're young and haven't blunted the forcefulness of their opinion or they haven't learned to be diplomatic -- it's because young people read to figure out how the world works and they engage with books in very serious, significant, intense ways. You may remember doing this as an adolescent; I certainly do. And that seriousness means that when they meet with you they sometimes want to argue about your books, not because they're being jerks but because they really want to talk to you about the worldview that's in your books or the worldview that they're shaping. That's a very humbling and awesome privilege to have. That was very exciting: to write for more than to entertain people, but also to help them understand the world."

On the 'human rights disaster' of shutting down web access:

"There are three countries that have passed a law that you will be liable to disconnection if you are accused of (copyright) infringement (France, New Zealand and England). And really, because so many of us live in multi-person households, what we're really saying is that you'll be liable to disconnection if you live in the same house as someone who subscribes to an Internet service provider that accused someone using that router of infringement. It's not even like there's a person. It could be a neighbour, or someone driving by, or somebody you had over that is accused of copyright infringement and you lose your access.”

"Those rules are a human rights disaster, because they're coming in at the same time as so much of what we think of as fundamental to quality of life is being moved to the Internet. Now everything we do involves the Internet, and soon everything we do is going to require the Internet. In the U.K., they've just... merged the management of maternity benefits, old age pension, unemployment insurance and disability insurance. All those and other kinds of social benefits will be delivered through a single service, and that service will be what they call 'digital by default,' which means it is going to assume you have Internet access. And so in the U.K., we're really saying if we think you live in the house with someone watching TV the wrong way, we're going to make it nearly impossible, if not totally impossible, for you to get maternity benefits or disability benefits. That's just seems so wildly disproportionate."

On how Canada fares in this wobbly Internet world:

"I do think that our rules are making it easier and easier to take away Internet access, whether that's in the U.K., New Zealand, the U.S. or France, or other places where they're considering it. Canada is likely going to have to adopt this policy if we go ahead with the Trans Pacific Partnership that we just opted into with the United States.

"[The Trans Pacific Partnership] is worse for Canada because they've actually opted into the terms, but not to having any say in what those terms are. It's mad. We only know what leaks out of TPP, but what we've seen of the leaks has included a "three strikes" [policy of accused copyright infringements before disconnection] as an obligation to people who are party to the treaty. In the U.S., the Obama administration holds the belief that treaties like ACTA and TPP can be entered into on the sole 'say so' of the administrative branch, without the approval of elected lawmakers. Basically, the president can unilaterally sign the treaty and it's up to Congress to make the laws that the president has obliged them to.

"I think you'd find that the Harper government has a similar view, and in any event, I think you'd find that the Tory parliament has no interest in ensuring national competiveness and a balanced human-rights-centered view of the Internet by allowing for public participation in copyright lawmaking. We saw this with Bill C-11 when it passed: all of the Canadian owned media companies rejected it, all of the Canadian artist groups rejected it and all of the legal associations and bar groups rejected it, but the American labels wanted it and so they rammed it through parliament. Thanks, frankly, to James Moore -- B.C.'s own!"

On Canada's digital locks and the problem of secret-keeping:

"Canada passed a law that says if you break a digital lock at all, even if you don't infringe copyright, even if the person who holds the copyright approves of it, even if you own the copyright that the digital lock has restricted, that you are liable, you have created an offense. Even if you are blind and you have the right to remove a digital lock to convert books to assisted format, even if the company that made the work wants you to convert it, even if the company that made the lock has gone bust and there's no way you can continue to enjoy your property without removing the lock, that you're not allowed to remove the lock.

"Nobody wants a digital lock. Nobody woke up this morning and said, 'I really wish there was a way that I could enjoy my music with fewer rights, maybe I'll go see if can find some digital locks that have been put on music and buy that instead.' And since no one wants a digital lock, the only way to keep a digital lock tacked on a device is to make it a secret, so there's no program that you can drag into the trash called 'digital lock.' It has to hide things from the user, and hiding things from the users of computers is a huge problem in an age in which computers have cameras and microphones; we transact all of personal business on them; we take them with us into the bedroom and the bathroom; we undress in front of them, our children are in front of them. We need to have, more than ever, computers that never lie to us about what they're doing, that let us see all the things that they're doing and let us shut down anything that they're doing that we don't like.

"And by passing laws that give special protection to companies that design computers to hide secrets from their owners and to do things that their owners don't want them to do, Moore and the Tory government are really stacking the deck in favour of computers that will create terrible problems for their owners."

On how it could all get much worse:

"When it comes to disconnection, as opposed to digital locks, it's much harder to circumvent. In many cases there's one or at most two broadband providers [in a given country]. The broadbands tend to all lump into a group. In the U.S., the broadband providers have opted into a voluntary scheme of disconnection. At AT&T, there was just a leak of their disconnection rules, and if you're accused of multiple acts of copyright infringement, they will shut down your ability to access YouTube and Facebook. And they will also require you to attend a record-industry-run copyright school where you will have to be re-educated on copyright according to the theories of the record industry and then pass an exam in which you acknowledge that the record industry are the true arbiters of copyright law and their interpretation is the right one. I don't know how to explain it better other than just laying it out like that... Copyright is not the exclusive province of the record industry. Their view is not a truthful one and not a subtle one. And the idea that we have mandatory re-education for copyright just seems broken to me."

On whether there's hope for Canada's policies:

"With SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Personal Information Protection Act), I think we showed that people really do care about the Internet and they really are engaged with [the issues] if you give them easy ways to get involved. When organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or Open Rights, or in Canada OpenMedia used voiceover IP services that allowed people to connect with the lawmakers with one click, it was enormously effective and really changed the landscape for this stuff. It works, and there's more of us who care about it every day."  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Science + Tech

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