Opening the Book on Open Media

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In last week’s blog I talked about the role of Open Media in trying to undermine the democratic process and manipulate political opinion by orchestrating widespread anti-copyright astroturfing campaigns in Canada and elsewhere. It’s not just the damage to democracy from the hijacking of the normal political process that gets under my skin, it is the barefaced hypocrisy of a group that claims to be a champion of freedom of expression. 

Perhaps anticipating another impending “outing” of Open Media, (after the expose by blogger David Lowery), anti-copyright activist Michael Geist recently claimed that criticism of such manipulation is “mudslinging”, (“powerful lobby groups are working to discredit civil society voices”). This is another classic Geist case of the pot calling the kettle black. If exposing the astroturfing antics of Open Media is mudslinging, then I plead guilty. But let’s remember that Dr. Geist himself has been active in accusing FairPlay Canada [i]of astroturfing because they reached out to stakeholders, such as universities that train media studies students, seeking their support for a proposal that would protect jobs in the media sector by curtailing online piracy. Geist has also published statistics showing that 80 percent of meetings with officials on copyright issues in Canada over the past three years have been with “music, movie and publisher groups”, as documented through the lobbyist registry. Open Media cited this statistic to justify its astroturfing campaigns.

Frankly I don’t find this percentage at all surprising given the economic issues at stake, and the fact that these industries are key stakeholders in the copyright process. However the key point is that lobbying records are transparent and open to public scrutiny. One cannot say the same for Open Media’s campaigns. These are camouflaged attempts that purport to represent a local grassroots movement opposed to this or that measure affecting copyright or internet governance, whereas in fact it is an orchestrated undercover campaign designed to muddy the waters, spread disinformation, and hijack the democratic process.

What is Open Media’s motivation? Why would a small, supposed non-profit based in Vancouver, BC want to try to manipulate the outcome of issues such as notice and takedown proposals in the US, copyright reform and pirate site blocking in Canada, and reforms to the EU Copyright Directive (notably Articles 11 and 13)? Open Media was heavily engaged in the campaign to try to defeat these proposals, as I outlined last week, so what is it about Articles 11 and 13 that gets them so worked up?

Article 11 will grant publishers direct copyright over “online use of their press publications by information society service providers”, (while providing exceptions for hyperlinking and individual non-commercial use), a move that should strengthen their hand in negotiating licences with news aggregators and media monitoring services (such as Google News for example). Article 13 will require for-profit online content sharing service providers (aka internet intermediaries) to take “effective and proportionate measures” to prevent the availability on their platforms of unlicenced works identified by rights-holders. They must also act “expeditiously” to remove them, and demonstrate that best efforts have been made to prevent future availability.

Article 13’s provisions provide for a number of exemptions (non-profits such as Wikipedia, smaller platforms, educational and scientific repositories etc.), but target commercial web hosts which “store and give the public access to a large amount of works or other subject-matter uploaded by its users which [they] organise and promote for profit-making purposes”. In looking at who the measure targets the relevant terms are “public access”, “large amounts of works”, “uploaded by users”, and “organize and promote for profit”. Does this description remind you of anyone’s business model? Youtube maybe?

Perhaps not coincidentally, it has been reported that, based on the EU’s Transparency Register, Google and its associates spent over $36 million lobbying the Commission on issues like the digital single market, copyright and licensing, including Article 13. Some, including David Lowery, have noted that Google is among the platinum supporters of Open Media (in the $20,000 plus category, but that could be any amount more than $20K), and have suggested that Open Media is doing Google’s bidding. There is no question that Google has strongly opposed the proposed revisions to the EU Copyright Directive.

Google had this to say about its relationship with Open Media;

“As one of many donors, we are transparent about supporting Open Media’s work to campaign for the open web, and we respect their organisational and editorial independence.”

“One of many donors”, true, but there are only three or four donors in the Platinum category and none that can match the financial power of Google. Open Media itself says this about its funding;

”We do not take on projects that are funded solely (emphasis added) by any one organization or set of organizations – grassroots support is a must for our work. While the majority of our financial support comes from grassroots individual donations, we are also proud of the uniquely diverse and decentralized mix of aligned organizations that make voluntary contributions to OpenMedia.”

Such as Google, for example.

Maybe Open Media is not a cat’s paw for Google; perhaps their prime motivation is fund-raising and being prominent in campaigns against “hierarchical government and business bureaucracies” and “top-down governance and the often hidden power behind institutions” (to quote just a couple of their descriptions of the world in which we live) is one way to do this. They are against “old-dated businesses and governments” who “want to control the Internet”. Somehow Google slips through this net and is ok. Whatever their motivation or source of funding, they are actively engaged in subverting the democratic process (which they profess to champion) with their well-planned and apparently well-funded astroturfing campaigns.

It’s time to get this astroturfing group out in the open. It’s time to open the book on Open Media.

© Hugh Stephens 2018. All Rights Reserved.

[i] (the coalition of Canadian ISPs, broadcasters, and other cultural industry representatives that are seeking to establish a mechanism to recommend to the CRTC that offshore websites that are blatantly and overwhelmingly based on pirated and copyright-infringing content be blocked in Canada)

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