Saturday, May 08, 2010

An Open Letter to Stephen Harper (In Progress)

To the Right Honourable Stephen Harper:

Two recent pieces of news have caused me considerable consternation with regards to the policies advanced by your government; these being - in no particular order - your intent to bring "stronger" copyright law to Canada, and the intimidation of those feminist/womens' advocacy groups in Canada which have come out in opposition to your frankly contemptable decision not to support safe access to abortion for women in impoverished countries. Although these two issues aren't of themselves related, your government's adoption of these policies speaks to a perilous disconnect between the values of the Conservative party and those of the general Canadian public.

On the matter of copyright, our country has been very fortunate that circumstances have conspired against your previous attempts to reform the law, which were met with much resistance by consumers, educators, and even creators themselves. The copyright consultations held by your government last year seemed a show of good faith, a willingness to seek a superior balance between the needs of consumers and creators. Please, do not disregard the will of the people on this matter; it is in their name and their interests that you are supposed to govern. What the media conglomerates are demanding of the Canadian government (and others) is not merely protection for artists, it is support for business models that are dying. It is an end to privacy and even the presumption of innocence, the so-called "three-strikes" policy that would institute widespread monitoring of internet use and automatically disconnect citizens merely accused of copyright infringement without so much as a chance to defend their innocence. It is a lockdown on culture that simply does not make sense in an age of sharing. I do not, Mr. Prime Minister, mean "illegal file sharing" when I say sharing; I refer to a more general set of cultural phenomena. Networks and software aren't only making "theft" easier; they are also giving the means for creative self-expression to more people than ever before in history. People are chosing to create, and in many cases they are choosing to share: whether it's the Free/Libre Open Source Software movement, or the Creative Commons.

I am not so naive as to think that in some ideal future, all creators will work for free. What I do think is that the way to ensure that creation continues in this country is not to use heavy-handed legislation to lock Canadians into the old ways, old businesses whose practices are no longer suited to the current market. Apple and Amazon have demonstrated that what your legislation would call "digital locks" are not necessarily the only way forward for digital commerce: both have been selling music without such encumberances for some time now. You have children, and so I imagine that you are not unaware of the artistic medium that is the videogame (I have a bone to pick with Roger Ebert on this matter, but that is for another time and place). Stardock Studios and the website "Good Old Games" sell such products without digital locks, and they do not seem to be in dire straits. Conversely, EA Games' "Spore", a hotly anticipated title, suffered a PR nightmare when it was released with particularly strict digital locks upon it. The fact of the matter is that the more entrenched these locks become, the better (comparatively) the experience of piracy will become. A pertinent example can be seen here: commercial DVDs when played in a standard DVD player assail the viewer with often unskippable previews and warnings. The content of commerical DVDs is scrambled, making it difficult for end-users to make archival copies, or even simply watch the DVD on operating systems such as Linux. A pirated film, by contrast, simply begins playing the film when placed in a DVD player. It is simple to make copies for use in case the original becomes damaged, it can be played almost anywhere, and it can be converted to many different formats to be played on many different kinds of player. Paradoxically, the kind of broad functionality that I and many other Canadians would be interested in paying for is NOT the kind offered by the industry. It is that same industry which has been framing the choice in this debate as between Canadians (and others) being offered their very limited, highly controlled packages...or nothing at all. I wish that your party would take a stand against this, not just from a consumer rights angle, but also because we should not encode into law this caste-like distinction between producer and consumer. We are not passive; I don't believe that culture exists without interpretation, criticism, parody and remixing. These are not valueless acts, but the content industry seeks in law to make crimes of some or all of these!

I have not been very forthcoming with positive suggestions, but as a start there is perhaps NDP MP Charlie Angus'proposal to extend Canada's existing private copying levy to a new range of devices. Here, at least, is found the spirit of true compromise: the industry wants money, and Canadians want relative freedom to format-shift their media once they have legally obtained it. Rather than criminalizing the latter, the private copying levy allows both sides to enjoy what they say they want to enjoy. But if the content industry insists instead on tighter controls, you must ask yourself; if they thumb their nose at money, what is it that they really want? Do they want fair compensation for creative works, or do they want a frankly unrealistic and unfair level of control over our culture?

On the issue of your government's lack of funding support for abortion abroad, and the subsequent cutting of funds to women's advocacy groups I urge even more strongly that you reconsider your position. DVDs are one thing, but your party is endangering human lives in the hopes that it can simultaneously adopt fundamentalist values re: abortion and still somehow stay in the good graces of Canadians by maintaining the status quo on the homefront. With all due respect, Sir, just how stupid do you think Canadian feminists (both women and men) are? At best, what your policy decision indicates is that your government either does not believe in a universal standard of human rights (reproductive and otherwise) or that you intend at some later time to mount a campaign against abortion at home. Either of these conclusions should send chills down the spine of respectable Canadians, Mr. Harper. Women who are denied access to safe abortions will often seek them from less reputable sources. This can kill them, Mr. Prime Minister. I believe in providing and promoting contraceptives in places where women wish for a greater control over their reproductive lives, but if you have been following the issue you will know that it is sometimes difficult to get men to wear condoms reliably. There is an effort to produce a simple, easy-to-use, easy-to-distribute female contraceptive cream (or some similar unobtrusive substance), but this is not at present a reality. The reality is that a balanced approach to the reproductive health of women must include abortion, even if only as a last line of defence against unwanted pregnancy! That you have chosen not only to stand against abortion, but also against those groups who have lawfully and dutifully protested your choice in this matter speaks to an even greater evil than neglect, however. These groups do not exist to stroke your ego, and they will not always agree with you. Disagreement and debate are principal foundations of democratic society, and while I suppose there's no law that says you MUST fund these groups, it rather seems as though you are cheating. Quieting the debate with fear tactics and then claiming that you have won by virtue of being the loudest (or perhaps the only) voice is poor sportsmanship - and I am being generous. What is it that your government fears from these groups? That they might take a stand against what they perceive as injustice? Is that not an invaluable practice in a free society, or do you believe that all of our checks and balances and our Constitution itself are just so much window dressing for your new brand of tyranny? Well this Canadian will have none of that, and will have none of you if this is the most reasoned and mature manner in which you see fit to conduct public discourse in this once-proud nation!


A Concerned Citizen.

I intend to send this letter in paper form at some point in the near future, but not quite in this present form. The final work will obviously need less of the spleen that makes blogging so delicious, but I'm curious to know what you think could be improved. Yes, I am outsourcing my proofreading. I'll be doing some of my own over the next day or two...but I won't catch everything!


Daydream Believer said...

So, um, proofreading... we can start with the typo at the end of the second paragraph.

"People are chosing to create, and in many..."

There's a reason I didn't vote for Harper...

Etarran said...

Consider the removal of the first-person pronoun from as many places as possible. Don't state opinions, state facts. Not "I think," but "it is." I is useful when discussing the opinion of the canadian people, however - after all, you are taking it upon yourself to act as their representative.

Your references will be stronger if they can be drawn from multiple sources - especially if you can find a widely reputable news source that covers the events you are describing that is not known primarily for its bias (or known primarily for its conservative bias can also work). On a similar note, don't make them look things up - they won't. You want to use, say, Spore as an example (italicized, not quoted, by the way, as it is a proper full-length work), you have to reference articles or places they can learn more about it. This is obviously harder to do in paper form than on the internet, but you still need to give them some kind of lead if they want to understand where you're coming from.

I also suggest looking for official statements with regards to these policies - only if you can prove that they are attempting what you claim does your argument have any value.

As you of course identify, you are a lot harder to ignore the less crazy you sound - this means using moderate language, demonstrating respect both for the office and the institution of canadian government, as well as the person holding said office. Resorting to name-calling is useful for blogging, but in a serious discussion makes you easy to dismiss as childish.

Since you admit that these issues are not necessarily related, you may wish to split this into two letters. Remember, the prime miniter will never read this - but if it is well-written, articulate, and demonstrates an understanding of the issues, then a relevant government official will. As there is no minister of women's rights and also copyright law, sending both issues in the same letter risks one of your arguments going unheard.

Things that are a matter for another time and place are just that: leave them out. Tangents weaken your argument.

That's all for now, might have more comments later.

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