The Department of Foreign Affairs says it’s received tens of thousands of emails over NAFTA talks. About half originated from Open Media, an advocacy group one critic accused of using auto-email forms easily manipulated to manufacture a “grassroots backlash”.
“Since June 2017 the government has received over 46,500 emails and submissions related to the North American Free Trade Agreement,” said John Babcock, spokesperson for the department. “These emails raise issues on specific areas of the negotiations, including intellectual property.”
Nearly half the emails, more than 22,000, were generated in the past week through an August 29 Open Media website form targeting Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. The Vancouver-based group in a notice New NAFTA Agreement Would Threaten Canadian Digital Rights urges visitors: “Send an email to Minister Freeland telling her our rights are worth standing up for”.
Laura Tribe, Open Media executive director, yesterday confirmed the original email form allowed individuals using any computer from any location to send an unlimited number of messages to the Minister’s office. The website has since been modified to restrict indiscriminate emailing, she added. “One person sent in 100 comments yesterday,” said Tribe. “That is why we have now put protections in place.”
“This is absolutely not a fake protest,” said Tribe. “The insinuation that people are not speaking out is not valid.” Tribe said 22,222 “unique individuals” used the Open Media form to email cabinet in the past week.
One U.S. academic said he earlier tested the Open Media web form by sending 24 separate messages to the foreign minister without email verification. Mathematician Dr. David Lowery of Atlanta, a lecturer at the University of Georgia, said in a commentary he was “able to easily impersonate you from outside Canada” using a keystroke program.
“I automated 24 spam emails and received 25 separate verifications from Open Media that my emails were sent to Freeland,” wrote Dr. Lowery. “It should be noted the ‘thank you’ email included a solicitation for money. And by ‘automation’, I mean I just had to hit the ‘back’ button on my browser and then ‘send’ button the webform. Not exactly brain surgery.”
“The Interview May Be Over”
Lowery, a recording artist and copyright advocate, accuses lobbyist-funded groups of manufacturing electronic protests against intellectual property rights: “Spamming activities by the likes of Open Media seem designed to overwhelm the channels through which ordinary constituents communicate with government officials. It drowns out the voices of ordinary citizens and replaces them with robotic corporate and special interest-crafted messages.”
Open Media opposes any NAFTA terms that would expand third-party legal liability for internet service providers over republished content. The group is subsidized by Google and telecom providers. “It is not a conflict,” said Tribe; “I’m not sure where your questions are going and I think the interview may be over.”
The group also opposes any extension of current copyright protection from 50 to 70 years after a creator’s death, describing the measure as “dangerous” and costly. “The new NAFTA agreement contains an intellectual property chapter that could trade away Canada’s digital rights by extending copyright terms,” wrote Open Media; “U.S. negotiators and media corporations pushing these unfair rules just won’t take no for an answer.”
Canadian songwriters, publishers and performers’ unions in testimony at parliamentary hearings have repeatedly appealed for a 70-year rule as an essential revenue source that helps support new talent. “Our artists are struggling,” Laurie McAllister, director of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, said in June 12 testimony at the Commons industry committee.
“The middle class artist is disappearing,” said McAllister. “Many live at or below the poverty line. It’s not because they’re not good.”
Petitioners noted the 50-year rule under Canada’s Copyright Act is among the lowest of G7 countries. Copyright is protected for 70 years in the U.S. and European Union.
“Holding onto that copyright over an extra twenty years can translate into thousands of dollars if a good deal is in place,” Margaret McGuffin, executive director of the Canadian Music Publishers Association, said in May 31 testimony. “One or two songs in a catalogue can make a huge difference to the viability of a music publisher.”
“Most of our members are small or medium-sized businesses,” said McGuffin. “These companies all represent and invest in thousands of Canadian songs, songwriters and composers who are heard daily on the radio, on streaming services, in video games, and in film and television productions around the world.”