Lawyer and journalist Michael Geist's work centres around online copyright laws that are becoming increasingly important to journalists. Lora Grady investigates the problems and how Geist is delivering the solution.
by Lora Grady
This past June, then Industry Minister Jim Prentice introduced a bill on Parliament Hill that sparked debate across creative industries nationwide. Bill C-61, a reform on copyright legislation, could have potentially strangled the freedom of online journalists without them even realizing it. Fortunately, thanks to university professor, blogger and columnist Michael Geist, thousands were aware of the impending bill. When Geist heard of the proposal in December, 2007, he took to his blog, posted videos on YouTube and set up a Facebook group called Fair Copyright For Canada. Soon, Geist was everywhere, making appearances on CBC's The Hour and TVO's The Agenda. The bill didn't survive with the October election, but the debate made many realize Canada needs to update its decade-old copyright legislation. And now Geist is leading the pack of journalists seeking fair copyright laws.
As writers increasingly find their print articles published online, Geist wants to clear the confusion around internet law and what it means for journalism. Legislation like C-61 would prevent journalists from effectively conducting research and news gathering, and would squelch our freedom of expression. While the government struggles to keep up with ever-evolving internet law, Geist continues to fight to protect the rights of journalists to conduct news gathering and keep the public informed. He is armed with two master's degrees and a doctorate in law, and is the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa. His technology columns appear weekly in the Toronto Star and Ottawa Citizen. As both a journalist and lawyer, Geist sees an urgent need to protect Canadians' rights to use the internet for freedom of expression. "It's often citizens who are performing journalistic activities who are the first and sometimes the most authentic source of information," says Geist. "People who are engaged in [journalism] ought to enjoy the protection that journalists traditionally enjoy." Geist sensed that online freedom was about to be seriously threatened a couple of years ago.
In fall 2007, rumours swirled around Ottawa that Prentice wanted to introduce legislation for anti-circumvention laws. Anti-circumvention prevents the circumvention of Digital Rights Management software placed on digital files (such as music or Word documents) by copyright holders. Under the copyright act, journalists are exempt from infringement under the Fair Dealing provision for the purpose of news reporting. But with the proposed legislation "everybody becomes a criminal, or at least an infringer," says Geist, "once they seek to pick that lock."
In a letter responding to Bill C-61, the Canadian Newspaper Association pointed out how it would road block the Fair Dealing provision: "Journalists who come across or are sent electronic documents (for example from a whistleblower) may be unable to use them without incurring very significant liability, even though there are no barriers on using the same materials in print format." By not including the right to access material for research or news reporting purposes, the bill restricted the liberties of Canadians engaged in online journalism. But this wasn't the only problem; the important issue of "throttling" was also conspicuously absent.
Last spring, the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) filed a complaint to the CRTC accusing Bell of internet throttling. Bell was allegedly slowing the download and upload speeds of CAIP customers that rent portions of Bell's network to sell broadband services, forcing the providers to slow their own customers' speeds. However, the CRTC eventually ruled in Bell's favour. "If you're a well-established large broadcaster or media company, you're in a position to ensure that your content flows through on the fast track," says Geist. "If you're an independent media site, you might not be able to pay in so your content is stuck on the slow lane or throttled altogether." Geist says this means that sites such as rabble.ca, a not-for-profit independent journalism organization, could find people turning away from frustration over slow buffering and downloading speeds. Less traffic slowly turns into the end for these independent-voice productions.
After Geist blasted Prentice's proposals on his blog and in his columns, he took advantage of the mainstream media to further increase the awareness and other journalists acknowledge his contributions. Mathew Ingram, communities editor and former technology writer for The Globe and Mail, sees Geist's work as essential because he believes no one else is doing it. "Michael clearly felt that there was a hole there that needed to be filled," explains Ingram, "and he's certainly done a more than capable job of filling it." Toronto-based freelancer Ivor Tossell calls Geist stunningly effective in getting his message out to the masses. "He is a journalist and a source at the same time," says Tossell. "He's managed to make himself be the go-to guy for media comment on this topic." But others argue that Geist's overwhelming media influence isn't all positive.
Geist's constant appearance in the media has led to much eye-rolling and heavy sighs from people like Byron Holland who work on creating policies around internet law. Holland is the President and CEO of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) and says that "Because he writes in a paper, it gets taken as unbiased journalism," says Holland. "It's not journalism. It's Michael's opinion." Holland believes Geist uses forums such as conferences and panel discussions as stunts or props to get his own message across to the media without fully engaging in the process.
"He sits in an ivory tower and theorizes about the absolute perfections," remarks Holland, "and we work down here on the ground in the mud and trenches, having to deal with reality."
Still, Tossell sees Geist's opponents as merely frustrated. "The people on the other side of this are operating in policy and legal circles," continues Tossell, "and they're just not getting the same media attention." Geist does not censor comments on his blog, whether positive or negative and welcomes a healthy debate.
Ingram thinks that although internet law is on the government's backburner right now, and despite all the critics, Canadians need Geist more than ever. "Thanks to Geist, the government is more sensitive to those issues now," he says. "It's going to think a little harder about some of those things in the original legislation."