The Geist in the Machine

Every now and then you run across some bizarre information, something that is inexplicable on its own terms and clearly must require yet more information in order to be understood. The piece of information that makes you ask what possible explanation can there be for the particular set of facts.

So it is with Lawbytes, Inc. Lawbytes, Inc. is an Ontario Corporation Number 1329176 with a registered address in what appears to be a nice suburban area of Ottawa that is a stone’s throw from the University of Ottawa.

The “Administrator”, President and Secretary of Lawbytes, Inc. are all the same man: Michael Allen Geist. Now we “Hollywood” types are used to seeing this kind of pattern in a corporate registration for what is called a “loan-out” corporation, meaning a corporation that exists solely for the purpose of providing (or “lending”) the services of an individual. These Hollywood corporations are essentially the alter ego of the person whose services are loaned, usually a rock star. But as far as the tax man is concerned, income to one is essentially—although at least in the US, not quite—the same as income to the other.

And when you see a corporation with its offices in a residential neighborhood and no other connection comes up in an Internet search except the payment connection—it’s almost always the alter ego, in this case, the avatar, the meme of Michael Geist. For my snout—trained in the ways of “Hollywood” (kind of like “The Man from Hollywood” as Geist likes to refer to U.S. Representative Howard Berman), the connection—and purpose–is obvious.

According to a recent story in the Toronto Globe and Mail, there are rules of Treasury Board of Canada regarding payments made by the government to an individual without competitive bidding or what we Yanks would call a public “request for proposal.” This means that the work for which the person is hired has to be put out for bid in a public process unless the circumstances are unusual—unusual circumstances, “single source payments” are to be avoided. (One would also think that newspapers would want to disclose which of their writers or columnists were on the payroll of the government.)

Aside from the potential for out and out corruption (which I don’t think is happening here in a Tony Soprano sense), there is a particular policy concern. Single source payments can create a situation where bureaucrats with enough control over the purse strings to cut a check are cutting checks to one particular person who is most likely to give the results sought by that bureaucrat in an attempt to influence government policy—without the government necessarily even knowing the influence is present.

According to the Globe and Mail, a government contract valued at $24,500, or $24,985 for that matter, “[is] just under the value [of $25,000] at which departments [of the Canadian government, such as Industry Canada] are obliged to put most contracts up for public tender” or what we would call a “request for proposal”.

The recipient of these government contracts in the Globe and Mail story received two such contracts, each for $24,500. But the story also tells us that “Treasury Board policy also states: ‘Repeat commissioning of a firm or individual without competition should not become a practise, even if the value of the contract is under the mandatory threshold for the calling of bids.'”

Now when you search the Industry Canada website for any references to the very well funded Michael Geist, his name is not to be seen. Lawbytes, Inc., however, does come up a few times. And although Industry Canada made five payments to Lawbytes, none of them exceed the magic $25,000 limit set by the Treasury Board of Canada.

October 1 to December 31, 2004
Contract 5014050 – 2004/12/20 – 2004/12/20 – $24,985.00 –

April 1 to June 30, 2005
Contract 5015474 – 2005/05/12 – 2005/06/10 – $18,725.00 –

July 1 to September 30, 2005
Contract 5015851 – 2005/07/18 – 2005/10/31 – $10,700.00 –

April 1 to June 30, 2007
Contract 5019637 – 2007/05/09 – 2007/09/14 – $21,200.00 –

July 1 to September 30, 2007
Contract 5019981 – 2007/08/13 – 2007-09/10 – $10,176.00 –

All of these payments to Lawbytes, Inc. are for “Other professional services not otherwise specified” or “management consulting.” Presumably this $85,786 was paid for some kind of work product, none of which is identified.
The Canadian taxpayer paid for something with the $85,786 that I’ve found. The question is – what is it?

Because Geist is injecting himself into the international policy debate (in at least one case courtesy of Google in London) and has obtained US backing for the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, the Alcan of IP, influences on him and people he influences are of increasing importance to the creative community around the world. (Not to mention his argumentation supporting the blatantly infringing behavior by the losing side in the Isohunt U.S. case—yet another loss for the anti-copyright crowd in the courts.)

When trying to describe these activities, the word “lobbying” comes to mind — if Geist is being paid by bureaucrats at Industry Canada to lobby the Canadian government, either as a matter of law or of practicality, it seems like that should be disclosed both to the public by Industry Canada and by newspapers carrying his materials.

And even if this isn’t lobbying as a matter of law, these payments certainly seem to be secretive in the most business-as-usual, non-transparent manner. For someone who in my view is obsessed with calling out others on secrecy (like ACTA) and for the fundamental need for “public scrutiny and discussion”, a number of questions come to mind:

What exactly were these payments for?

Was there competitive bidding for all of these projects?

And are there other work “projects”, payments or consultations that we don’t even know about yet?

Stay tuned.

See also: Fair Copyright Canada and 100,000 Voters Who Don’t Exist

See also: The Children of the Lessig God and the Viking Pirate Kings