Did Google Astroturf Group Fail to Report Copyright Lobbying to Canadian Authorities?

A few weeks ago this blog on the website of Michael Geist caught my eye.  Michael Geist is an anti-copyright activist/professor at University of Ottawa and I generally try to keep up with his writings.  In this blog he claimed that lobbyist data showed groups representing artists and other copyright holders represented the vast majority of registered copyright lobbying meetings with Canadian officials.  Registered is the key word here. Bookmark that and we’ll come back to it in a minute.

While Geist might be technically right I don’t really get the point of the blog. What is so outrageous? It should be no surprise that artists and rights holders in Canada are actively lobbying their government on copyright. The 2012 Copyright Modernization Act, Notice and Notice, and lax enforcement of online piracy have been a disaster for Canada’s creators. So-called “copyright reforms” have further decreased revenues for many artists with academic authors particularly hard hit. But more importantly it’s been a disaster for Canada’s reputation for good government.  Indeed Canada recently joined China, Russia and Venezuela on the US Trade Representative’s list of piracy havens!

Canada has started smoking and hanging out with the bad kids.

Therefore Geist’s headline is plausible but largely uninteresting. Canadian creators are very concerned about inadequate copyright protections. So yes, lots of meetings. Perhaps the only interesting thing about Geist’s misleading headline is that it is the sort of soundbite that is weaponized and then used to delegitimize copyright review processes around the world. “Big media got special treatment.” Corporate disinformation, meant to hide the fact copyright is an individual right and the only thing that guarantees large corporations pay artists anything.

We see this across all western democracies. Anti-copyright activists, many with ties to Silicon Valley cyber-libertarians, hell bent on lowering trust in democratic processes and institutions. Ends justify means if they achieve their narrow anti-copyright anti-regulatory goals. The sad truth is that these propaganda campaigns add to centrifugal nationalist sentiments tearing at foundations of western liberal democracies. See here. Folks like professor Geist are unfortunately the useful idiots in Silicon Valley’s war on all government.

Meet Open Media.

Regardless, I find Geist’s numerical claims on lobbying suspect. It just doesn’t pass the smell test.

Indeed, one Canadian author joked that this seeming imbalance was probably because the anti-copyright lobbyists were simply not filing lobbying communication reports.  Even though this statement was made in jest, it struck me as something worth investigating. Because we’ve seen this type of trickery from the anti-copyright astroturfers again and again.

I decided to poke around and see if there was something to this. I decided to start with Open Media.

In the last few weeks, The Times of London, The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and this blog have written extensively about the Vancouver BC group OpenMedia.Org and it’s role in spamming the EU parliament as they voted on the EU Copyright Directive. By “spamming” I mean tweets, robo calls, fake emails and even faxes. These pre-formatted communications often contained misleading or outright false claims about the copyright directive.  Fortunately this “cyberturfing” campaign backfired. I mean really really backfired. MEP Helga Trüpel said in a teleconference right after MEPs passed the copyright directive “It is due to this message spamming campaign, I talked to my colleagues here and they are totally pissed off.”   Her words not mine.

We also caught Open Media spamming Canadian government officials on copyright review and intellectual property provisions in NAFTA negotiations.  Here’s a summary:

https://thetrichordist.com/2018/09/04/canadian-government-funded-group-spamming-canadian-negotiators-on-nafta/

So who are Open Media?

The Commissioner on Lobbying lists Open Media as an “engagement network”. Is that a thing? I don’t know what that means. Seems like double speak for something that supposed to look grassroots but is really astroturf.  I do know that this “engagement network” is at least partially funded by Google; It files lobbying reports with the Canadian Government; and has what appears to be a for profit subsidiary (New/Mode) that markets its services to other aligned groups (like SaveYourInternet.eu). One of the directors of Open Media was also Google’s former public policy chief in Canada 2007-2014. 

One bizarre fact:  the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada gave Open Media $50,000 (2016-2017). I have no idea what to make of this. It appears to be one branch of the Canadian government funding spam campaigns against other parts of the Canadian government (as well as the US and EU governments). So much for “good governance!”

But I digress.

The point is this: If any anti-copyright group would be lobbying the Canadian government on copyright, this would be it. Open media conducts very public campaigns on copyright. Why wouldn’t they also be as vocal on copyright in their lobbying?

So what do the records of the Commissioner of Lobbying show?

Consumer Affairs 41, Copyright 0

Just a few of the lobbying meetings with members of Parliament during copyright review hearings.  Topics? Consumer Affairs and Telecommunications.  

As required by Canadian law Open Media filed 53 Lobbying Communication Reports but not one lists copyright (or even intellectual property) as a topic. 41 of those meetings were said to have concerned “Consumer Affairs and Telecommunications.” 14 were “Privacy and Access to Information.” And 2 were “International Affairs.” So no copyright? Not a bit of public policy on copyright was discussed?  Even when meeting a current government official that once worked for Google on copyright policy? Does this seem plausible to anyone?

The last registration form for Open Media with the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying clearly lists copyright policy as area of interest. There is currently an active copyright review in Canada.  And Open Media have an active email spam* campaign directed at foreign minister Freeland that specifically addresses copyright and NAFTA. I quote from the auto generated email:

“Furthering my concerns about intellectual property, I implore the government to ensure we protect both Canada’s fair dealing provisions, as well as our Notice and Notice copyright warning system. As one of the key levers that controls expression online, Canadians are deeply concerned about being able to shape their own copyright policy. As we head into a mandatory 2017 copyright review, we should not accept any rules under NAFTA that would restrict us from fully evaluating and updating these policies in the best interest of Canadians.”

(Shouldn’t this by itself count as lobbying and require a disclosure?)

Again I have no idea if Open Media discussed copyright with any government officials.  Maybe they didn’t. But there are 53 lobbying communications with dozens of government officials listed. Those government officials could definitively answer the question. Of special interest should be those communications that have taken place during the copyright review.

Perhaps that Canadian instinct for good governance will kick back in and someone will investigate this. Who knows maybe even the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying will look into it.

UPDATE:  Looks like Hugh Stephens (Vice Chair
Canadian Committee on Pacific Economic Cooperation) just posted a blog on Open Media as well.  Good companion piece. Read it here:

Opening the Book on Open Media

*And Spam? Yes. Try it yourself. Fill in fake name, email and random postal code, keep hitting send button.  Big fan of the 1998 Truro SpamCats, myself.)

About Dr. David C Lowery

Platinum selling singer songwriter for the bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven; platinum selling producer; founder of pitch-a-tent records; founder Sound of Music Studios; platinum selling music publisher; angel investor; digital skeptic; college lecturer and founder of the University of Georgia Terry College Artists' Rights Symposium.

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