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Telus Cleanses Image on YouTube

Take-down of pro-union films angers Internet speech advocates.

By Bryan Zandberg 2 Jul 2007 |

Bryan Zandberg is the assistant editor of The Tyee. He welcomes your feedback via e-mail, and invites you to participate in the online discussion happening below.

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Telus building in Vancouver

Have Telus managers been brushing up on Orwell?

The company's mantra insists "the future is friendly," but critics say Telus is stifling the Internet to sweep the less-than-friendly bits of their past out of sight.

Earlier this month, Telus ordered YouTube to take down at least 23 videos posted to the site. Each short movie was potentially embarrassing to the telecom's public image since they documented instances of the company's rocky labour relations. Telus claimed their presence on YouTube, a user-generated website, was an act of copyright infringement.

YouTube's owners complied and took the videos off-line, but that set off alarm bells among union activists, who argue much of the footage never belonged to Telus in the first place.

The move also raised hackles with Internet free speech advocates because it appears to be part of a pattern that sees the telecom giant manipulating the web for anti-union purposes. They point to what happened in 2005, when Telus made international headlines by blocking 766 websites in order to bar access to a single pro-union one.

Telus Idol

The videos were filmed at different times and locales, but labour activist Dennis Watson says they had a common theme: to highlight the sour relations between Telus managers and their employees, many of whom are represented by the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU).

Watson posted the videos on behalf of friends in the TWU, and though the links to the videos from his website are now broken, he described some of them in an interview with The Tyee. (A brief synopsis of each one is also available on his website.)

A particularly damaging set of videos, eight in all, were of a lewd "team-building" party, caught on tape. As reported in a previous Tyee story, those videos showed company employees taking turns singing pop songs with Telus-related lyrics, while male Telus managers loudly rated the performances -- in highly sexualized terms when women took the stage.

Another has Telus CEO Darren Entwistle making a joke about the sexual orientation of the multi-millionaire CEO of Cisco, caught on film during a training seminar.

'Happy scabby'

While he suspects the eight Idol spoofs and the video with the Cisco comment likely belong to Telus, Watson says there are 14 others that do not.

Three of those are pro-union songs set to images of TWU picket lines, several are news reports, and the rest were composed of footage captured by members on their cell phones of scuffles between union employees and AFI security guards contracted by Telus. These videos stem from the bitter battle between the company and employees over outsourcing jobs to Asia.

Two songs, said Watson, "The Darren Scare'em Union Bustin' Blues" and "Happy Scabby," were original works written and performed by friends on the TWU picket line. They asked not to have their names revealed out of fear for their jobs.

Some of the material, however, is still available on the TWU website, or through file-sharing websites like BitTorrent.

The YouTube truth

Watson has filed a counterclaim to YouTube, asking the company to reinstate all of the videos, including the ones he suspects may legally belong to Telus.

"For them to be able to take that off the Internet on a copyright claim when they don't have the copyright, that's criminal," he said.

Watson said that the videos serve as important information for the public to have a full picture of the company's corporate behaviour.

"We're just basically showing people what Telus is doing with their offshore call centres. We're showing them that a lot of Telus employees do support union activity," a message Watson believes Telus is trying to squelch by having the videos taken down.

Asked if his company had overstepped, company spokesperson Jim Johannsson had the following to say: "There were videos internal to Telus that were posted on the site without Telus's permission."

TWU president George Doubt declined to comment, noting that ongoing grievances prevented him from doing so. Several TWU members involved in making the videos and contacted by The Tyee also declined to go on the record. They too cited unresolved grievances.

Web on ice

Internet law expert Michael Geist wrote about the take-down on his blog. He also spoke with The Tyee.

"To the extent to which this is material that they have no copyright over, it's absolutely unconscionable and an abuse of the system," said Geist, the Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that a wave of individuals and corporations are using intellectual property and other laws to silence other online users, according to a U.S. group called Chilling Effects.

The current notice-and-take-down system used in the U.S. to regulate copyright in user-generated communities like YouTube and ISPs like Telus is a ready-made tool to do just that, said Geist.

"Part of the problem is that so much of it occurs under the radar screen. There's a sense that there are literally thousands of take-down notices issued on a weekly basis."

Ironically, says Geist, Telus has historically lobbied against implementing the same system in Canada because the "shoot first and aim later" approach creates a lot of work for them as an Internet service provider.

To counter the abuse, Chilling Effects invites Internet companies to post the notices, which have become a major online annoyance.

"In a sense, Telus is making a good case for why notice-and-take-down is not a good approach."

Canada, he added, is considering a more equitable approach called "notice-and-notice," which in effect would require a court order before material could be taken down, thus taking away the incentive for intermediaries to take down music, video and other content without proof of copyright infringement.

Onerous onus?

Under U.S. policy, however, it still falls to the person who posted the disputed content to prove ownership, which takes time, and sometimes money. Geist says most people choose to move on rather than fight.

However, he also said that if it could be proven that Telus claimed ownership of something they don't legally own, they could be open to litigation, although the liability would be modest.

One month later, Watson is still waiting to hear the results of his counterclaim, but he's dead-set on seeing the movies back on the web.

"Keeping them on YouTube shows the truth."

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