Our Digital Future: A popular agenda for free expression

November 1, 2014

Internet users around the world have come together to shape a new agenda for how we share and collaborate online. OpenMedia has just launched a study called Our Digital Future: A Crowdsourced Agenda for Free Expression that draws on input from over 300,000 people in 155 countries. Together with a broad network of civil society organizations and experts, these concerned citizens have weighed in on how we can create sensible copyright rules that support free expression in our digitally connected era.

Just recently, Canadians were reminded of the importance of shaping balanced copyright rules when it leaked that a self-serving federal government proposed to carve out a copyright exemption for political attack ads. Although copyright should never be used to stifle free political expression, every Canadian should benefit from sensible copyright rules, not just political parties.

It was an especially hypocritical proposal coming from a government that is actively driving forward secret Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks with the U.S. and ten other Asia-Pacific nations. In a recent piece for the Monitor, we outlined how the TPP includes draconian changes in copyright rules that would overwrite Canadian law, invade the privacy of Canadian Internet users, and force Canadian Internet service providers (ISPs) to act as online police, monitoring content and even removing entire websites.

We timed the launch of Our Digital Future to coincide with a crucial round of TPP negotiations in Canberra, Australia the week of October 20. Both U.S. President Obama and Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb are saying they want a deal in place by the end of the year. Up to now, only industry lobbyists and government bureaucrats have had a voice in the negotiations.

That's why just over two years ago we embarked on a project to crowdsource a positive alternative to what the TPP was offering. The centrepiece of the project was an online tool that empowered over 40,000 participants to shape their own rules for sharing and collaborating online. Here are some of the recommendations they came up with:

Recommendation 1: Respect Creators. 67% of respondents in our crowdsourcing process wanted to see at least three-quarters of revenues from the sale of creative works go directly to artists and creators. They also desired new ways for creators to share their work, flexible exemptions from copyright rules, and a rich public domain. "These laws were originally put in place to protect the rights of the artist, yet in these days, it's only the producers/publishers/etc. that benefit," said U.S. resident LaTora Prince in their submission.

Recommendation 2: Prioritize Free Expression. Nearly three-quarters of respondents selected "free expression" as their top priority. Respondents proposed a four-pronged agenda for copyright, including preventing censorship, protecting fair use and fair dealing, promoting access and affordability, and creating clear rules to govern the sharing of knowledge and culture online. "On the Internet, free expression, creativity, education, public discourse and debate thrive like never before. The people of the world finally have a voice," said Chris from Sweden.

Recommendation 3: Embrace Democratic Process. Over 72% of respondents want copyright rules created through "a participatory multi-stakeholder process...that includes Internet users, creators, and copyright law experts." Respondents decried closed-door processes like the TPP, strongly preferring participatory, democratic and transparent forums. "I want a platform where citizens can vote on specifically worded issues, and vote on amendments to the specific wording. Popular decisions brought to lawmakers and become policy. A democracy that keeps up with communications technology," said Sean from Canada.

The contrast between what citizens want and what TPP negotiators are pushing forward couldn't be clearer. The powerful global institutions shaping the TPP are using anti-democratic tactics of exclusion and secrecy to ensure political disengagement on an agreement that will significantly impact our lives. These top-down bureaucracies and institutions eschew open and participatory public engagement on the issues, which extend well beyond "trade," in favour of backroom meetings with unelected and unaccountable lobbyists and bureaucrats.

The Our Digital Future report, and the community that built it, stand as a powerful counter to the top-down dynamics driving the TPP. And this is just one example of the potential for new open and participatory decision-making.

Consider the case of the Spanish Green Party, which used a new app called Agora to crowdsource votes on a transparency bill. Or the DemocracyOS platform, which is being used by Tunisian activists working to establish a new constitution. Once citizens take the initiative and come up with a positive vision, it makes it very difficult for politicians and decision-makers to ignore it.

People around the world are coming together to expose the illegitimacy of closed-door decision-making processes. These movements are demanding decision-makers abandon their regimes of secrecy, and embrace the open and participatory values of the Internet when it comes to shaping our collective future.

To learn more about what Internet users have to say about how we access knowledge and share culture in a digital age, we invite you to read the full report at https://OpenMedia.org/DigitalFuture.

Steve Anderson is the executive director of OpenMedia.ca, a community-based organization that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet. Josh Tabish is the campaigns coordinator with OpenMedia.ca.