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Geist Flips the Mob Switch

June 23, 2010

Recently I was discussing the effect of the Internet on Chinese dissidents with a friend from a world that concerns itself with that kind of thing. He told me that what bothered the Chinese was not so much that dissidents had access to any particular information which does bother them, and it wasn’t so much that dissidents were able to post particular information which bothers them a bit more—what really bothered them a lot was that dissidents were able to use the social media tools to organize. Now that they don’t like at all.

Although the tools were quite different, what is happening today in reaction to the onslaught against artists from the consumer electronics industries and their fellow travelers is not that different from the organizing efforts of the labor movement against other unfair labor practices in the past. Instead of anonymous goons with baseball bats, organizers are met with anonymous hoards “commenting” online in something very similar to what George Orwell called the “Two Minutes Hate” and what Jaron Lanier calls “the mob switch”.

As Lanier puts it—“If everybody connects to everything you have [the potential for] a mob… [especially] in an online design that encourages cheap anonymity with no sense of commitment and no sense of consequence such as the comments section on a blog or a YouTube video…You can tell you are a mob member when you are with a group of people who have designated [for abuse] a member within and an external enemy as the competing clan”.

Sound familiar?

Like most mobs, those who witness the savaging become fearful of being savaged themselves in what some might call the Old West of the Internet. They may seek the safety of mob membership, whether or not they have participated in the savaging themselves.
Is it surprising that mobs form online? Not really. The potential consequences of the mob leveraging security failures online and the inexcusable dereliction of government to enforce the law offline for online violations are enough to scare anyone. So in these and other ways, the analogy of Internet to the Old West is only accurate if there were no marshals and the mobs wore sheets.

The consequences of standing up against the mob was made clear early on in the commercial life of the Internet in a process that has become a set piece of how the consumer electronics industry plays politics. Some of the names have changed—now Google is a major player with its multimillion dollar global lobbying budget and ex-EFF lawyers, for example—but the methods haven’t.

Until last year.

Lily Allen got the mob treatment when she stood up for independent artists—the mob did not even want her speaking for others. And of course Lily got the most vile, sexist attacks because no one can be as vicious to a woman as a dateless fanboy in his PJs—particularly from under his sheets.

But then a curious thing happened—the Featured Artist Coalition formed in the UK–an exercise of the fundamental human right of freedom of association. The FAC made a joint statement supporting Lily Allen’s views on file stealing. The artists organized and spoke in one voice. UK Music was formed, a first time alliance of all elements of the creative economy in the UK—and elected an artist to lead them. And now there is the beginning of justice forming in Britain with the Digital Economy Act. Lily Allen is not quite Norma Rae, but she’s not that far off, either. I would not make too much of the causal interconnectedness of these events, but it is definitely a trend.

And now that the Canadian government has introduced a comprehensive revision to their copyright act (called Bill C-32), it should come as no surprise that any attempt by the Canadian creative community to organize in support of those elements of the bill that they want to support and oppose should be met by an online mob of digital natives and their demagogues.

The Empire Strikes Back

No one in Canada has more consistently shown himself to be an opponent of creator rights recognized by the international community than Michael Geist (aka “he who shall not be named,” according to a prominent Canadian artist). Not only is he a consistent opponent of creator rights, he is a long-time opponent of Canada’s implementation of agreements of the international community (such as the WIPO Copyright Treaty) which Canada has negotiated and agreed to but never enacted into law—for over a decade, and a critical decade in the evolution of the worldwide theft of the work product of creators. (Not to mention his obsessive attack on ACTA, but that is another story.)

If you don’t know the name, Geist is an academic and advisor to the U.S.-backed Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, the Alcan of intellectual property, and the paid consultant to Industry Canada. SG-CIPPIC‘s external advisory board includes the American EFF legal director, the American director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the American academics Lester Lawrence “Ace” Lessig III and Pamela Samuelson (the Samuelson of Samuelson-Glushko), the latter of whom in typical Silicon Valley style is also a board member of EPIC and the EFF. Very cozy. (See also Lessig’s “The Starving Artist Canard”.)

And this is the same EFF whose lawyers have been called out as helping Limewire perfect its thieving and advises companies to “obfuscate” their paper trail to avoid liability (see EFF, Best Practices for Online Service Providers http://www.eff.org/files/eff-ospbp-whitepaper.pdf). This is the same EFF lawyer who told me that “artists will just have to learn to get along on less money” due to file stealing—and who has now dropped all pretense and gone to work for Google. There’s little doubt whose side they are on—and it’s not the side of “balanced copyright”.

Given Geist’s many American benefactors in the “consumer” movement, it is not surprising that he is frequently referred to as a “consumer” advocate. This mix of “consumer advocacy” and cyberlawyering business is shadowy stuff—Ralph Nader it ain’t. As we have discussed here before, this toxic brew aligns Geist with the consumer electronics industry that would like to sell consumers the devices or services that violate the rights of creators, and not align with the creators themselves. No wonder that the Consumer Electronics Association lobbyists in Washington pointedly recommend that everyone read Geist’s blog—he is clearly their advocate and no friend to professional creators.

And yet with all these Yanks integrated into his life—including selling the naming rights to the former CIPPIC to the organization controlled by Professor Samuelson and Professor Robert Glushko, her rich Silicon Valley technologist husband (which is how CIPPIC became SG-CIPPIC), Geist is the first to go on the jingo whenever the government proposes changes to Canada’s copyright laws. Yanks under the bed, Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper is a puppet of Hollywood, and so on, and so on, and so on. Actually—the Yanks aren’t under Geist’s bed, they are in it. It’s just a different set of Yanks.

One could say that this is all fine, one can take money from Americans, pump up big American consumer electronics corporations, and still criticize your own government as being American puppets—but I think this time with Bill C-32 Geist’s jingo is overplayed.

So while he’s getting Yankee greenbacks into SG-CIPPIC on the one hand, Geist also has consistently taken money from Industry Canada—well over $1 million if you count his academic grants, but still tens of thousands if you only count the money he had paid to him personally through a front corporation (Lawbytes, Inc.). Now he summons the mob to support Industry Canada in a bureaucratic struggle between Industry Canada and another government department over the fate of Bill C-32. So I guess it is possible to take money from one master while criticizing your master’s enemy. The interests are clearly aligned.

I don’t mind that Geist goes jingo on America while SG-CIPPIC takes money from Americans, I don’t mind that Geist stumps for the modchip makers in the CCER, and I don’t even mind that he does some blocking and tackling for his benefactors in the Industry Canada bureaucracy in their internal fight against the Canadian government (clearly outlined by Geist himself). That’s for Canadians to criticize or lionize as they see fit. I don’t like it, but there are a lot of things I don’t like.

But what I do mind—a lot–is that he does it at the expense of the creative community—and not just Canadian artists who can speak for themselves if they are allowed. When he tries to make Canada into a Temporary Autonomous Zone for thieves like Isohunt, then he affects the world, and then he has overplayed his jingo. The professor has no clothes this time.

John L. Sullivan from the Union Meets “El Qwazo” from CCER

Back Stateside, I would suggest that like the formation of the FAC and UK Music, the most important political event of the last year is the alliance of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the American Federation of Musicians, the Directors Guild of America, the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees and the Screen Actors Guild. This alliance of the creative workers raised its collective voice—summed up nicely in this excerpt from their joint letter to Victoria Espinel, the United States Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator at the White House:

“Together, our entertainment guilds and unions represent over 300,000 individual workers whose livelihoods depend on the enforcement of this country’s copyright laws to prevent theft of their creative output. At stake are not just our members’ jobs and well‐being, but also the well‐being of their families, and hundreds of thousands of ancillary jobs in communities across the country where our members live and work….That is why it is so critical to protect their creativity in the digital age, which has given rise to the rampant theft of movies, television programming and sound recordings. [We understand] full well the disastrous impact of unchecked online theft and illegal Internet activity on our members—and on young people who aspire to work in our business….”

The Executive Council of the AFL-CIO, the largest labor organization in the United States unequivocally supported these working people against rampant theft, and they exercised their rights to speak out against the largely anonymous posters (who likely repost under various screen names) who post comments under phony names in an attempt to silence working people.

These workers from the AFL-CIO do not mince words—we have come a long way from the time that counsel for creators was silenced by a Ninth Circuit federal appeals court judge in open court for referring to the Grokster and Morpheus file stealing companies for what they were—thieves. Thieves who were attempting to profit from “obfuscation.” That outburst didn’t work out so well for those judges—summarily reversed in the landmark Grokster case.

Of course the union movement was born and tested in a cauldron of solidarity. There was nothing anonymous about Harry Miner and John L. Sullivan or the Central Labor Union. There were anonymous goons sent to beat them in an attempt to shut them up and break them down—so workers have seen the mob switch thrown before. And they know that solidarity is the only reason that they are respected, and the reason that the Obama administration backs their positions on IP.

So when the U.S. Trade Representative is critical of Canada, the USTR is, among other things, taking into account the plight of working people in the labor movement.

The Mob Switch

So it should come as no surprise that Geist threw the mob switch against a website called Balanced Copyright for Canada like he was riding the Cheshire Hunt in sheets. I haven’t spent a lot of time on the site, but a quick review of Balanced Copyright suggests that it’s exactly what its name implies—an organizing effort to advocate balance in Canada’s new proposed copyright law that takes into account creator rights.

What is unique about the Balanced Copyright site is that it is asking Canadians—including the creative community–to get involved with their copyright law and the source is clearly someone other than Geist or someone who he has influenced. This is, I think, a first, or at least a near first for Canada. Compared to the controversial letter writing wizard that Geist apparently helped to game, the site seems to be consistent with good practices in grass roots organizing.

Most importantly, Balanced Copyright is not directed at non-Canadians—which is more than you can say about the the controversial modchip wizard as Canadian lawyer Richard Owens has discussed in detail. And despite some good old obfuscation to the contrary, the primary issue that Owens complained about was that Geist was driving non-Canadians to the modchip wizard and my primary beef with the modchip wizard was the Industry Canada renegades were making special accommodations for a form letter of extraordinary dubious origins. I don’t see anyone from the Canadian creative community posting on Torrentfreak or Billboard.biz to drive traffic to Balanced Copyright.

And Geist is now bashing Canadian artist and Balanced Copyright advisory board member Loreena McKennitt because she happened to have a business relationship with a pro-copyright music business exec and testified at the same time as a music business trade association at a Heritage Canada hearing.

The Man 2.0 really hates it when you organize.

Guidance from Minister Moore

Balanced—meaning that the law balances the interests of many interested parties. I think this is actually what the government of Canada said it wanted to see in the law that it drafted despite the bureaucratic struggle by Geist’s benefactors Industry Canada. Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore reiterated that view as recently as today. Minister Moore also said that he’s tired of “babyish” approaches to solving Canada’s copyright issues by people who pretend to care about copyright but do not at all. (It would appear that Geist thinks this was directed at him, or he at least sees a media opportunity if he can get Minister Moore to debate him.)

Moore said: “Those people who are out there who’re saying copyright legislation/copyright reform is not good, these are people who are dressing up the fact that they don’t believe in copyright reform at all. There’s people out there who don’t believe in copyright at all. They just say well Bill C-61, the old copyright legislation, we disagree with these specific revisions. Well, Bill C-32 we have these specific amendments. Don’t fool yourself. These voices that are out there, there’s people out there who pretend to experts that the media cites all the time, they don’t believe in any copyright reform whatsoever. They will find any excuse to oppose this bill to drum up fear to mislead to misdirect and to push people in the wrong direction and to undermine what has been a meaningful comprehensive year-long effort to get something right.”

Geist of course has every right to be heard on this, and judging by the talk around Ottawa that he uses his press credentials to give interviews to actual reporters at media-only briefings, I’m sure he will be heard. (Although I guess that’s better than flying to New Zealand to get his picture taken—on somebody’s dime, maybe public money?) Getting press attention has never been a problem for him—in fact some reporters will tell you privately that he calls them up and lambastes them if they write an article on a topic he is interested in and they don’t call him for a quote. “Media floozy” wasn’t the exact phrase, but this is a family show and I’m sure you can read between the lines.

Apparently Geist and his amen chorus called up the Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists and the Canadian office of the AFM wanting to know if they had created the Balanced Copyright website. Apparently these creator unions did not claim credit.

Given the efforts of AFL-CIO and the creative unions in the U.S. to protect the rights of all workers in U.S. law, I imagine that that the Canadian unions would be only too happy to reciprocate in the fullness of time, and I’m pleased to see Canadian artist and entrepreneur Loreena McKennett stepping up and showing leadership. Given the long history of union solidarity from Detroit to the Lenin Shipyards, I’m sure the unions will support her.

The only way that the labor movement was able to form and survive was through solidarity. Their latest life and death struggle against massive online theft is no less an existential fight against an attack on workers by big business—the Gargantuan consumer electronics industry against creators.

So when Geist attacks the Balanced Copyright site, what he is attacking is the right of like minded people to organize—and his attack is no surprise, of course, because just like the union busters of the past, organizing workers drives them crazy. I can understand the lack of critical coverage of Geist by the Canadian press. He’s obviously a powerful guy with a lot of influence in major parts of the Canadian government bureaucracy. Just look at all the money he has managed to make in “untendered” consulting agreements with Industry Canada. Only someone with a lot of juice could pull that off—every time Geist gets one of his many Industry Canada untendered payments somebody is running the risk that they’ll get their ticket punched. And yet they inexplicably do it anyway.

Surely reporters are aware of Geist’s many untendered contracts. I’m simply not prepared to believe that conscientious journalists failed to investigate Geist’s background. They must fear that their access might dry up were they to speak truth to power and inform the public of Geist’s untendered payments, for example.And this seems to be the message behind Geist’s immediate attack on the Balanced Copyright site. Don’t cross me, little journalists—look what I can do to the little artists when they try to organize against me! Even the unions fall in line before my mighty floozy!

My Brother’s Keeper

No one songwriter or artist has the resources to take on the Samuelson-Glushko organization—we saw that in the orphan works fight in the U.S. Not to mention Google, the EFF, the Consumer Electronics Association and so on. As we saw today, these are somewhat interchangable, anyway.
These people defy governments-they crush any artist who opposes them. As one songwriter advocate said recently, this is a very different enemy than we have encountered before. It is well funded and international in scope, just like the Samuelson-Glushko enterprise. The bad guys exploit this weakness and it is how the bad guys win. This is why solidarity is vital, as the labor movement teaches.

It is no surprise that Geist and his mob demonize anyone supporting compliance with international norms for creators. As Jaron Lanier cautions, “It’s not crazy to worry that, with millions of people connected through a medium that sometime brings out their worst tendencies, massive, fascist-style mobs could rise up suddenly.”

It is just not fair that any time that the creative community tries to organize themselves with their relatively meager resources (getting more meager by the day thanks to the consumer electronics industry) they are attacked as being tools of “fill in the blank” by demagogues like Geist. But the good news is that we now know who he is and what he is, so we know to keep an eye on him as he tries to extend the reach of the Samuelson-Glushko enterprise beyond the borders of the U.S., just like we keep an eye on the Pirate Bay, Isohunt, Limewire, Google and other bad guys.

Life is not fair. Sometimes you almost throw a perfect game but are denied. The best team does not always win and the gallant effort is rarely rewarded. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t try and it doesn’t mean that you give up. It means you organize. You organize and run your plays, even when the odds are long, even when you throw the Hail Mary, a play that crystallizes why the game is played.

Justice realized is a majestic thing to behold. And sometimes the enemies who beset the righteous are struck down. But God helps those who help themselves.

Time to engage.

See also: A handy chart of government contracts with Lawbytes, Inc. f/s/o Michael Geist

See also: A closer look at Lawbytes, Inc. f/s/o Michael Geist

See also: The Professor Has No Clothes

See also re undtendered contracts: The Industry Canada Music Study Part I and Part II

See also more about untendered contracts: Only The Shadow Knows Part 1 and Part 2

See also internal document re Industry Canada and CCER letter : A Dedicated Group of Likeminded People

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

See also: What do Canada, Vietnam, China, Russia, Ukraine and Romania have in common? (And, no, it’s not future sites of the Creative Commons Internationale)

See also: Artist rights are human rights

See also: The Spy Who Consulted Me Redux: The Consultation of the Mikado

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