Founder and Executive Director of Open Media, Steve Anderson on creating a more participatory democracy, representing citizen voices, and the importance of the open internet.
Tracy: So tell me about the origins of Open Media.
Steve: Sure. There have been a few iterations but the initial start was me wanting more people to know what's going on in the world, particularly around media and journalism. I started emailing over to friends and family some links saying, "Hey, everyone should know about this." And that mailing list - or that community - just started growing and growing. Now I think it's the largest online community in Canada for citizen issues, and one of the largest digital rights communities in the world. So it started from that initial phase of wanting to share what was happening with people.
One of the more notable inflection points was when I finished my undergrad in communications; I had this list of people who were interested in the same things so I decided to try and turn it into a little media news organization. I moved back in with my parents (which was hard), took a landscaping job and a whole bunch of other weird odd-jobs. One of those jobs was writing this software setup guide for point-of-sale software - which was the most boring job ever - but it had this horse on [the package cover], and I remember one day asking my boss, "Can I just write this guide as if I'm the horse talking to people?" And he said yes, which was a high point [Laughter]. So I spent several months doing that and other jobs, just to make ends meet. But after a while the organization started to pick up so I started to get jobs filming and writing.
Because you took the Masters communications degree program at SFU [Simon Fraser University], so that was your background?
That, and my previous degree with the same focus from the University of Western Ontario, definitely opened up my eyes to how powerful communications and the Internet could be. I wanted to make people aware of that power and what's going on in the world, which was my initial foray. Not long after, I started to have success -- I heard about this issue in the U.S. called net- eutrality where the telecom companies wanted to control the Internet and make it more like television where you had to have a million-dollar network in order to reach people. At that point I had a choice: I could either sit back, see where it goes, and resign myself to working for a big media conglomerate, or I could try to use the skills I had to make people aware of this issue and get them involved. So I produced a video (that no one should ever watch [Laughter]) and it went viral online - right when YouTube was hitting. From that, a non-profit called Free Press hired me to do more video work. In the end we won that battle to keep the Internet open. It took about a year, but it was successful.
That was the big issue in the U.S. initially. Were the telecom companies in Canada looking at doing similar things as well?
The thing we would say is, "You may not live in the United States, but your favourite web service likely does." So that means digital rights issues in the U.S. really affect all of us. I recognized that as someone who makes media I wouldn't be able to reach a U.S. audience, and potentially even Canadians if this went through. Essentially if the telecom companies can take that type of control there, the whole Internet would then turn into more of a TV-like medium.
For those who might not understand why that would be problematic, can you explain further why this is something that should raise concern. Perhaps comment on what an "open internet" means, and also its importance.
The reason the Internet is exciting to me is because it creates possibilities for a better world: for a more participatory democracy through free expression and through new forms of collaboration. We're starting to see that happen within the wider economy - like the sharing economy which is really fuelled by the open Internet. We also see with new forms of democracy - with Idle No More in Canada and the Arab Spring in The Middle East - that there are possibilities for a better world to emerge. I know that I can't control that outcome but I can work to maintain that possibility, to keep the platform for free expression open. Because when you have the ability to reach one another directly and to openly collaborate, that just changes the dynamic and can potentially change the world.
Democracy Now! is a great example of that. A news network that has grown from very humble beginnings to be so well-respected and so widely watched. They hold truth to power and show the sides of the story that you'd never see on TV. That shift happened because of access to what's really going on in the world through the internet.
Yeah and that's definitely what this is about; there are those possibilities with the free and open Internet. There’s also that access to knowledge and what it can potentially mean for us as citizens. I recently testified before Parliament on [government surveillance bill] C-51. I've done it a few times now, and whenever I have that opportunity to meet decision makers or people in power, I always try to crowdsource it. I ask people online what they think I should say. The reason I do so is because I think people collectively have better ideas than I do myself. I spent about a week reading everyone's input and I was really impressed because people really knew a lot about this complicated legislation: they were citing the bill, they were citing legal analysis--and these are just everyday people.
Having easy access to information can really demystify the legal and policy making process. When I was presenting, one of the Conservative MPs, Roxanne James, was being really insulting and suggesting that Canadians didn't understand what they were talking about. So I called her out and said that I think it's really sad that someone in public office would insinuate that engaged Canadians don't know what they're talking about. And they called, 'Order, order!' because you're not supposed to call out an MP on a Parliamentary Committee apparently. The disjuncture between the disparaging attacks from Conservative MPs and the highly intelligent input I received from citizens to me represents a glimpse at the potential for a better more grassroots form of democracy.
Is that process [of speaking before Parliament] something you can just apply to do?
It's a bit of a mysterious process but I applied to do it and the NDP put me on their witness list I think - they have a certain amount they can fight for. So I think that was part of the reason. I also initially got the National Firearms Association to join me, and they're a really powerful conservative group.
Oh interesting. Can you explain that partnership a bit more?
Yeah, so I'd been building that relationship for a while. I find often in our society there are some forces that want to slice us up and say that we all belong to these little political factions, but I just talked with them and said, "Hey, you care about privacy right? You were against the long-form gun registry. Well this is like that, but it's collecting information on all of us and sharing it even further." They agreed that this was wrong, so our commonalities are much stronger than our differences on privacy issues.
Interesting that it's on both ends of the political spectrum - the Bill is a privacy invasion no matter who you are. I've asked others this, but in your opinion why is Bill C-51 and government surveillance in general such a bad thing? For the average citizen who says, "I pay my taxes, I'm an honest person, and I obey the law, so I have nothing to hide." Why should that person care?
For sure. So there are a few reasons: losing our right to privacy can ruin everyday people's lives. You could end up on a watchlist or have restrictions on your career. For example, there's a registry that the RCMP has with 480,000 Canadians on it, and that's available for employers and a whole bunch of other different kinds of authorities. In recent months, over 200 people have come forward (and that's just people reporting themselves) that have said, "This list has ruined my career" or "This list has made it so I can't fly." These are people who have done nothing wrong: they have no criminal record - they just have some data floating around that has been wrongly associated. There is one woman for example whose husband made a false claim that she had been abusive, but it never happened and later got pulled. But then when she was getting a job after her degree, her employer found that old data and she faced restrictions on her career. That's the kind of thing that'll happen. She's done nothing wrong, and then suddenly her career is in jeopardy. So that's what happens when we don't have our privacy protected.
Under C-51, they'll collect information on law-abiding Canadians and share it with 17 different agencies - so that means the data is going all over the place, and to foreign governments as well. With this widespread disclosure of our sensitive data, the likelihood for data breaches increases dramatically. We've seen SIN numbers get leaked, credit card numbers get disclosed; in fact there have been over 3,000 breaches of citizen data by the government in the last few years affecting 785,000 Canadians. There's a security risk when you have these loose privacy standards, and it actually makes us less secure in an actual, tangible way.
To me, privacy is the most basic, individual form of security. Having that ability to control information about yourself is fundamental to our individual security. Also when you think you're being watched it changes how you operate. Why do you close the door around people you love when you go into the washroom? Or even care to have the choice to do that. So I think for people who say, "Well I'm not doing anything wrong" I would say: imagine giving your email password out on the Internet to all your friends. Well you wouldn't, because there is a value to private conversation and an imposed vulnerability when those conversations or activities are exposed. No one's perfect at every moment, all the time. You don't want a private communication from years ago to be used against you later on. It's our basic freedoms and liberties that are what's at stake here.
Touching on what you said about how it affects your behaviour, some people might not want to look up, say, quotes from the Quran. If everyone who is interested in Muslim studies is getting tagged as a potential terrorist, then that clamps down on intellectual exploration due to fear. This bill has also been touted as a way for governments to 'catch' terrorists?
Yeah it's a bit mysterious whether or not they really think it's going to. All the security experts say this bill is reckless and vaguely worded. It may even end up being constitutionally challenged. But what they say is that people will now know that promoting terrorism or using 'terrorist language' - that loose definition - could get you in trouble. It could get your website taken down, or your publication in trouble, etc. So naturally that creates an unnecessary chill on free expression.
The logic that this censorship will somehow keep us safe doesn't really hold because if you ban content related to security, then you can't find people who might be radicalizing. And you also can't find someone online and decide that, "Hey this person looks like they need to be reached out to, or talked to and connected with to prevent them from falling into that darker side." So then it gets hidden and it's happening behind closed doors, which is counter-productive to stopping people from going there. In terms of hate speech, we already have provisions in the criminal code that if someone is caught engaging in hate speech online, we have mechanisms to deal with that. So this is just creating a really wide, loosely pinned net that will just drive radicalized people underground and chill free speech. But by their logic, if you just muzzle it then it somehow goes away. The Conservatives are plainly wrong on this.
I've been warned by some that because it's so vague, C-51 will be an excuse to investigate people they feel are too vocal against their policies. For example I wrote an article about non-intervention in Iraq and Syria, and was told this could be reason for investigation or for being put on a list. Essentially they'd be crushing dissent with this bill.
Yes, it definitely crushes dissent and it restricts criticism of the government. So I don't know if that's the direct intent of this Bill, but it's definitely what's going to happen as the result of it.
Well let's change topics then [Laughter]. Want to tell me about OpenMedia's Stop the Meter campaign?
Yes, so in Canada we have only a handful of telecom companies that control 90% of the market, which is a problem. Because they have that kind of control they can do things that are negative to Canadians and to Internet users especially. One of the things they wanted to do was put a pay meter on our internet so that every byte of data you use would cost a certain amount of money - kind of like our cell phones but even more expensive.
I first found out about this scheme from our community of supporters who reached out online. We've always tried to operate from the grassroots up at OpenMedia, so when our online community was saying, "Hey you have to do something about this", we put up a petition and started campaigning. The government regulators (the CRTC) agreed for metered billing to go forward. And then that petition just blew up. It became the largest online campaign in Canadian history.
Right before it blew up we went to everyone and said, "This decision is going to come down and we want to know your ideas on what we should do: what kind of materials we should put out, what kind of messaging we should use," etc. and we got a bunch of really great ideas. When the decision was made to let it go through we went back to everyone and said, "Please make this go big." And it blew up because of that collective input; that wisdom of the crowd reflected back at people.
That campaign was really inspiring for me personally because people who never get involved in politics were stepping up and making their voices heard. It was very self-organized: some people were signing petitions, some reaching out on social media, others making their own graphics, some people made their own videos. Someone even made a hip-hop remix song about Stop the Meter and it was actually quite good! People did local independent protests, and over 100,000 people wrote into the CRTC through our campaign. If you think about it, it was like this really big participatory media project with half-a-million people involved, which is just really amazing to be a part of and to help facilitate. It was a year-long process, but in the end we brought some of the founders of the Internet (who actually created the Internet) to the CRTC and we said, "Okay, half-a-million people have said that this is bad, 100,000 people wrote to you, and these people with us here actually created the Internet and they say it's bad, so just don't do it." And in the end they decided not to.
That is awesome.
Yeah, that was definitely kind of a coming-out-of-the-woodwork type of thing for us. Because when we started that campaign, it was basically just me and someone else both working part-time trying to do our best. Canadians found us in that campaign and we've thankfully been able to grow into a more sustainable organization since.
I like when one individual who has that fire is kept alive by the involvement and creativity of others, when it would seem too defeating to take things on by oneself. People really came together to accomplish something there. So then you guys went on to fight Bill C-30?
Yes, C-51 feels very familiar to me because of C-30. During the last federal election we let people know the government wanted to push forward this online spying Bill C-30. And right after our community came to us and said, "The conservatives got elected, they're going to push this through. You should set up a campaign against it." We had never worked on surveillance before, we'd only worked on affordability, so I remember thinking, "Uh we're kind of burnt out, and this is a big new thing to take on..." - but we just didn't have a choice [Laughter].
So again we asked people, "Why does this bother you?". We used the results from that to create the campaign, the communications, and the graphics. There's a bunch of iconography and messaging out there that was obviously quite fitting, and that's also mostly because it's what people told us to use. So we built this big coalition of experts and organizations, we had a petition, and people made viral videos again - entirely voluntarily. Andrew Clement and Kate Milberry at the University of Toronto produced a documentary which wound up screening all over the place. And [the Conservatives] were going to slip this into an omnibus crime bill, so that was the big first wave of our campaign: to say that it must not be put in there. And we won that in the Fall of 2011. From there we kept making sure more and more people were aware of it. We actually did some stuff in [Public Safety Minister] Vic Toews’ riding; he had a column in the local newspaper so we put an ad up beside it saying, "Vic Toews is being reckless."
Oh no way - you just asked them to put it beside and they did?
Yep! [Laughter] They introduced the Bill the following February, and so we went to our community and said, "This Bill has been tabled, we need a large public outcry on social media. This is what we know, here are all the materials, please do what you can to make people aware of this. Help us grow the online movement."
Again there were a bunch of things people did that were very creative, but one of the coolest things that I could've never even dreamed of was the Tell Vic Everything Twitter campaign. This was a hashtag campaign someone came up with where people would tell Vic Toews mundane daily life things on Twitter by tagging him. So they'd be like, "Vic I just went to the fridge to get a sandwich #TellVicEverything". Just as a joke, to say well hey if they want to watch everything I'm doing, I'll just tell him. That went viral and the humour of Canadians was on full display - it was really funny. A good one was something like, "Hey Vic I'm missing an email from last week, can I have your copy? #TellVicEverything". Because it was so funny, the media picked up on it and everything snowballed. In the end they shelved the bill, and about a year later they quietly said they weren't going to push it forward.
What's nice is that kind of humour shows people they can engage in a way that's not so complicated. It takes away the intimidation of politics and becomes engaging enough for people to feel empowered that they can make an impact.
Yeah, agreed. I feel that with all these things we have to create a platform for people to feel comfortable and interested themselves. And then automatically when people step into that platform it's empowering and it's almost like, "Oh yeah, I can do that again." It's a gateway to becoming an engaged citizen.
The TPP is a huge topic right now. It would essentially give large multinational corporations a lot more power over regulatory boards. So they could sue a country for "loss of potential profit" if that country's human rights laws, environmental regulations, etc get in the way of profit. Open Media is also fighting this trade agreement - the TPP?
The TPP is bad for a whole bunch of reasons - almost too many. It's a similar story: our community mentioned that Canada was signing onto the TPP agreement, which also involves censorship of online expression. We were winning fights here in Canada, but we would lose a lot of that progress by signing onto this agreement. So again we were commissioned to do something about that. That's when we started to poll and campaign specifically around the Internet censorship parts [of the agreement] and we brought together this international coalition. We launched our international organization by essentially putting up a website, and then suddenly we had all of these supporters in the US, Japan, and Chile - all over. So that was very exciting.
The TPP from a technical standpoint would create new liabilities for online service providers, so if you're a Hootsuite, or a Facebook, or a YouTube, or even a blog, you would be liable for the content of your users. For example, if you have a blog and someone comments on it and links to illegal material, you would be liable for it and you'd have to pay. So that's the big change. All of these websites would have to monitor what everyone's doing, and then they'd have to remove content. A lot of people just wouldn't be able to do it, and if you don't have a legal budget then you might not be able to deal with it, or it would be really risky.
All of this becomes worse because the TPP is an international agreement with 12 countries, and to enforce these rules they're going to create an international tribunal that is extrajudicial - it's run by corporate lawyers. So even the ability for Canadians to push back against these rules at a domestic level (by creating a law against Internet censorship for example) is restricted, because that international tribunal could then sue the Canadian government for creating that law.
Multinationals suing a country's government for putting through a law that its people united together to implement. It sounds obscenely undemocratic.
Yeah exactly. So if we created a law in Canada that stated content on the web can't be censored, and that there should be no liability for online service providers or bloggers, if the TPP goes through, then Time Warner could go to an international tribunal and say, "Hey that's an infringement, we think the Canadian government should pay us 5 million dollars if this law goes through." Then we would have to pay - as citizens - millions of dollars, and we'd also lose that law that we democratically fought for.
A huge affront to democracy to sign onto while we hypocritically tout democracy around the world.
Yeah, and we're seeing this on a smaller level already with [the North American Free Trade Agreement] because NAFTA has similar provisions. So when Quebec passed a moratorium on fracking, these companies began suing the Quebec government through NAFTA for doing it. So the TPP takes that and makes it way broader in terms of the issues, with way more countries and companies involved - so we could have New Zealand or Australian companies suing us.
The whole process is extremely secretive; they've closed down completely now, where no one can get access to the text or be involved in the meetings. But right before they did that, I went to the negotiating round in New Zealand. They had a Stakeholders' Day where experts were allowed to make presentations to government officials. I went and it was really strange being in there because there were only a handful of public interest people who had passes. On the other hand, there were lots of government bureaucrats and lobbyists.
I got up right after Time Warner whose presentation was all about, "Give us power to censor things! It's our right." And I tried to do what I did in Canada with the CRTC and in Parliament. The thing I'm always saying is, "Actually, citizen voices should be defining our rules, and closed processes are illegitimate." We used an Internet voice tool where people could write in their comments on what they think these online expression rules should look like, or what they want to say to these decision makers in general. In my presentation I highlighted those comments and then I had an iPad that was streaming them in real time. I handed that around to the audience and said, "While I'm speaking I just want you to look at these comments streaming to see what people are actually saying, and think about if what you're doing here today is truly reflecting what people around the world are saying."
I like the notion of getting the public in behind closed doors. It can seem like an impossibility, but that's exactly what you're doing: bringing their voices into these decision-making rooms. How did you get to this point where you thought, "Hey I can take this on" when most people think, "Well we're screwed".
I guess I just intrinsically feel like that's what should happen. I have a lot of appreciation and respect for people's individual voices and I think that if we had more open democratic processes, our society and the world would be a much better place. It's not necessarily about being 'left' or 'right', it's about letting people have a voice. It's also about having a more open, transparent process, and having people feel empowered enough to play a real role, an important role - not just rubber-stamping what's already being said. I know that's the way things should run.
So in everything we do at OpenMedia, we try to be that meta story, and just to model that as much as we can. We're just about to launch our third major report, and when we put out reports, we crowdsource them so that we can create a citizen-driven agenda. We've done that on telecom, we've done that on free expression, and we're about to do that on surveillance. It's much more powerful in terms of activism to actually model and provide a solution: both in process and in the actual policies we're putting forward. It's better than just saying, "We don't want this." And if we continue to model that and every time we're up against something, to point to that crowdsourced plan, what we see is that over time you can change institutions. I remember with the CRTC, when the Stop the Meter stuff happened, I came and I read peoples' personal stories in front of the commission. From there I just thought that was what needed to happen. So now it's just kind of our thing.
Having seen all of this - having had such a positive response and seeing so many who want to lend a hand in any way they can - what do you say to those who think apathy is rampant? That no one cares anymore.
I actually think apathy is the biggest enemy of Canadians. Getting people to not feel apathetic and powerless - that's the most important thing to take on. But I also don't think that people are really apathetic, especially younger people. I think that's often said, but I don't think it's true. If you look at their actual engagement in the world, not just our established political processes, younger people (and I think people in general) are more engaged than ever before. They just choose to focus on things that non-profit [organizations] are doing: they volunteer, they choose to be involved with local initiatives like local community gardening, they do whatever they can do.
So people are not disengaged, they're just disengaging from official, political institutions and processes. And I think that's still a problem. So to me the trick is how to provide effective avenues for people to have their voice heard that feels authentic and real, and that actually works. If people aren't engaging in traditional parties as much, or in our democracy as much, it's because I think they rightly see that it's not working for them or working in their interest. So when you provide alternatives, what I've seen is that with that avenue, or that pathway, or that community, people will take you up on it. People are not engaging in traditional institutions and political parties because they do not operate based on the needs of citizens -- they operate for their own agenda. We can model a more authentic, collaborative, and participatory mode of operation -- that's what I'm trying to do.
Which is hopeful - you don't have to be Justin Trudeau's right-hand man in order to have some influence.
Also being very transparent with your message: "If you do this certain thing, this is what we're going to do, and this is why it will matter." If you sign a petition and get your friends to do it, I will go to Parliament and in my presentation I'll have it right there with me and I'll make sure that those who are making decisions know that your voice is important. They need to know that they're feeding into something larger, and something that has a clear theory of change. It's not just, "Support this party" or "Support this charity to save the environment", without a clear path to how it will be accomplished.
I just saw this morning how [ex-C.I.A. director, general David] Petraeus was given a less-than-significant fine and probation for leaking high security documents to his mistress who was his biographer. This, while we're seeing Chelsea Manning in jail, Edward Snowden on the run, and Julian Assange labelled a terrorist supporter.
Yeah, the hypocrisy is truly upsetting. People like Petraeus only get a slap on the wrist because they're in a very powerful position - they're "part of the club" so to speak. And the people who are in a position to judge him don't necessarily want to punish those who are at that level, or make them feel insecure about their jobs. So if you're part of the club, aren't undermining the power of others, and are going along with everything, for the most part you're safe. Whereas Chelsea Manning and Snowden - these people are directly exposing, challenging, and undermining the power of the U.S. government and therefore that power is acting back to suppress them. It's a hard thing to nail down or oppose, because it's just how hierarchical power dynamics work and how institutionalized power operates.
It makes you wonder how they've gotten the public to just accept that as the status quo - that, "We can't be punished by our own laws, but you can". How do citizens even challenge systems of power that pervasive?
The reason is that it's sometimes hard to get public outcry when someone is perceived to have done something that's a bit outside of the lines, or questionable, in terms of legality. I don't think that's right but I think it can be challenging. But also people can become heroic symbols like Snowden. To a certain degree people think that he really took one for us all. But in terms of how you challenge that power to act on those powerful people in a way that is more symmetrical? I think we have to expose [their wrongdoings] as much as possible, which is not an easy task. But expose it as often as possible, and again model a more open, transparent and just way of doing things. Revealing that the emperor has no clothes as much as possible is definitely a good starting ground. The people who are being exposed are clearly not acting in our interests, they're acting in their own power and that needs to be challenged. Running right into the heart of it is the only way to go.
Is that the reason why you became interested in the internet? Because it gives you tools to challenge those systems of power?
Certainly. My initial interest was the possibility for new forms of expression and democracy, and then seeing that under threat I intrinsically wanted to prevent that potential for a better world from being taken away. I like the idea that tomorrow something could emerge that's really exciting, and I even like what happens on a day-to-day basis where people can collaborate on small projects. To me that's exciting, and that is worth saving. There's nothing more worth my time than our access to each other, which is what got me to volunteer for the net neutrality battle in the first place, and why it keeps me involved. I was working in the U.S. at that time, so I thought maybe I should learn about it in Canada which is when I came to SFU to study and do my Masters [degree] in communications. I told my supervisor there that we needed an organization in Canada that was going to safeguard the open Internet and our democracy and he agreed.
What drew you to the communications program at SFU?
I was really interested in the research and the expertise of Robert Hackett who is a professor there. He's an expert in the media democracy movement, and because I'd just been involved in the U.S. Net Neutrality campaign, I wanted to learn about it in a Canadian context and learn how to build an organization like OpenMedia. So he's one of the main reasons for sure. He was very supportive in the beginning stages of OpenMedia and definitely helped build the initial network of experts and supporters which was so valuable. I feel like he validated the whole thing.
Connecting with others and other groups is vital to success. I talked about that with Fiona from Gen Why Media who mentioned you guys as a great example of that. What made you understand that connections would be helpful to you?
It's like the crowdsourcing thing - I'm humble enough to know that I don't have all the right answers or all the expertise. It's the same as why we do a lot of coalition work. At OpenMedia there are things that we're good at doing (communications and so forth) but we don't have a ton of legal expertise, and we don't necessarily speak to the same community that the BCCLA does, or Gen Why does - so we can reach a wider range of communities when working together.
That kind of collaboration makes projects stronger and more resilient. Those people facilitating their own collaboration, lateral communication, and expression is way more powerful than just us doing it. We build a lot of coalitions but we make them networked coalitions, meaning that we create a platform for all these groups to collaborate and share initiatives. The base-point of common agreement is that, for example, we don't like C-51 -- so if you don't like C-51, come join on this platform and we'll collaborate.
There are groups who are doing 'in the street' public education, there are groups like Leadnow doing online videos and online petitions, there are groups like Dogwood who are trying to get the environmental community engaged that we just couldn't reach on our own, and there are groups like CIPPIC and CCLA and the BCCLA who are doing legal analysis. Actually I brought a lawyer from the CCLA with me to Parliament so that I had someone who could say smart things [Laughter] - a person who could answer the more challenging questions, which is of huge value. So we all have something we can bring to these movements, and we're all stronger when we can bring it all together.
Well that's a great message to end on - right as we're out of time. Thanks again Steve, I leave this with a very positive and more hopeful outlook on change.
Sounds good. Thank you too Tracy for discussing it al with me.
Capture Queue is a one woman team, so it's always greatly appreciated if readers feel inclined to bring my attention to any typos or corrections.