Who Does OpenMedia Really Speak For?


The other day an alarming message crossed my screen. “Stop the Censorship Machine”, it screamed to me in bold type. Whoa. This looks serious. I had better read on.

“Dangerous new censorship proposals are on their way. Lobbyists for the music and publishing industries are pulling out all the stops to impose Censorship Machinery on the American people via extreme new copyright rules”, it read.

“They want to force websites to build expensive robot programs to spy for copyrighted material…..U.S. copyright lobbyists even wrote to Trump attacking civil society efforts for fairer copyright and calling our desire to protect free expression “dangerous”, so new rules could pass quickly unless we show the U.S. Copyright Office just how many Americans oppose this censorship plan.

Sign on to endorse our letter below and we’ll tell the Copyright Office where you stand!”

Reading on, it became apparent that it was a scare-tactic screed about proposals (loosely known as “notice and staydown”) that are being explored to deal with the ongoing problem of playing whack-a-mole with takedown notices, where once taken down through the DMCA process, infringing material pops up again tomorrow under some other guise. Various proposals are being examined that would ensure that where there is an uncontested takedown notice, and subject to US fair use criteria, such infringing material would be blocked before it goes up (again) rather than having to take it down over and over again after it is reposted. But you wouldn’t really get that conclusion from the “stop censorship” message that talks about robots spying for copyrighted material, leading to censorship and the end of free expression.

There were footnotes in this alarmist document from the usual suspects, such as EFF and Techdirt. But then I noticed this campaign was sponsored by an outfit called “OpenMedia”. Who is OpenMedia, I wondered? Must be a Public Knowledge/EFF type US lobby group. After all, they are identifying with “the American people” and want to show the US Copyright Office “just how many Americans oppose this censorship plan”. Imagine my surprise when I dug a little further to find out that OpenMedia is not American at all but is based in Canada, in Vancouver, BC, in fact not far from where I live.

So who or what is OpenMedia, and who are the people behind it? That is a good question. If you go to their website, you will learn that OpenMedia is a “community-driven organization” that is “not a consumer group… also not a human rights, civil liberties, think tank, advocacy group, or watchdog organization…in reality OpenMedia is a civic engagement platform that empowers the Internet community to shape the rules that govern the Internet and technology.” Crowdsourcing is apparently a major source of funding, but an operation of this nature cannot run on crowdsourcing alone. Based in Vancouver it is home to a group of apparently dynamic and engaged younger staff whose mission is described as resting on the “three pillars of Internet freedom”;

Access: In order for everyone to benefit from the open Internet, we need universal access to fast, open, and affordable networks. Access to the Internet is a right.

Free Expression: An open Internet is a place of free dialogue and creative expression, a place where we can all connect and collaborate in shaping the solutions to the world’s problems. Censorship and interference—like government takedowns or content blocking—are the enemies of the Internet.

Privacy: An open Internet is free from mass government surveillance and the reckless treatment of sensitive data. Using the Internet to spy on innocent people without their consent degrades our freedom, security, and democracy.

Access, free expression, and privacy—who could object to these laudable goals? Especially when it is all done in such earnestness in the name of “freedom, security and democracy”.

It is hard to argue with “free expression” (although all expression has some limitations in our society, governed by rules covering slander, decency, racism etc.), and who among us would not support opposition to “censorship and interference”? Furthermore, probably all of us can agree that the internet should be “a place of free dialogue and creative expression”. These are all great motherhood statements, but if we probe a little deeper we will see that they are a smokescreen designed to advance a particular agenda. While parts of OpenMedia’s platform are hard to object to—after all, who wouldn’t want better internet service at a lower price, or who is not concerned that government surveillance should have its limits—other parts of the agenda are anti-copyright and anti-trade (stop the TPP is one of their mantras). Not only is OpenMedia against notice and staydown in any form, it also opposes site-blocking, and any attempt to monetize links to news-sites, to cite a couple of examples.

But even this is ok in a free world as long as they are open about it. What I find questionable is OpenMedia’s attempt to masquerade as a US advocacy group, when it is not even based in the US. Partnership with like-minded organizations whether at home or in other countries is one thing, but passing yourself off as a US-based organization, speaking to and on behalf of Americans and in effect engaging in (one might say interfering in) the US policy process, is quite another.

There is nothing wrong with taking a public policy position on what is happening in other countries. We criticize China’s human rights record all the time, and closer to home in the copyright realm, the US-based International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) does not hesitate to criticize the copyright record of other countries. In fact the IIPA has just issued its annual recommendations to USTR which, among other things, recommends that Canada stay on the Section 301 Watch List because of various shortcomings in copyright protection. (I will write about this later). But the IIPA is clear as to who it is, who it represents and what it wants. OpenMedia can hardly say the same, at least with respect to its Stop the Censorship campaign. This I find dishonest—just as dishonest as the attempt to wrap its anti-copyright bias in the cloak of free expression and opposition to “censorship”. It makes one wonder who it is that they are really representing.


© Hugh Stephens, 2017. All Rights Reserved.


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