The Internet Is Here To Stay!

Earlier, something extraordinary happened: there was a paperless revolution. Across the Internet many major websites did the unheard of and went “dark,” meaning the websites were unavailable to users. Although unavailable, these “dark” sites had a message to their madness: Stop SOPA/PIPA. SOPA is an acronym for the Stop Online Piracy Act and PIPA stands for Protect IP. Both USA Bills are purportedly for the protection of intellectual property rights, but in reality the Bills are much more.

SOPA, in particular, gives broad authority to shut down websites, even foreign websites, without notice for “committing or facilitating” copyright infringement. The overreach of the legislation has the potential to adversely impact many websites we read and use on a daily, maybe even hourly, basis such as YouTube, Twitter, Open Culture, and Brain Pickings. For further explanation of the issues read the articles here and here. For an excellent understanding of why Canadians should be worried, read this blog by Michael Geist.

Of course, in Canada the Copyright Act protects copyright material from being distributed and published on the Internet without the copyright holder’s permission. However, there is presently no formal policing of the Act and it is the copyright holder’s responsibility to claim the right and seek enforcement. Interestingly, besides the Copyright Act, which has its main objective to protect intellectual property, there are other Canadian statutes in which the Internet is referred to as a tool to enhance, not detract, from the valid objective of the legislation.

For example, in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, which provides a mechanism for determining the efficacy of projects affecting the environment, a number of sections require the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to “establish and maintain an Internet site to be generally accessible” in order to provide public access to records and reports related to assessments. Thus, this remarkable piece of legislation provides transparent governance through the best possible platform: the Internet, which permits the greatest number of people the fullest access to possibly life-changing information. There are other Acts, which also require some form of Internet access as in the Civil Air Navigation Services Commercialization Act. Instead of restricting access, the Government is embracing it with this, dare I say, “anti-1984” legislation. Yes, we are out of the eighties and there the Internet shall stay!

Of course, the idea of restricting the use of information on a platform dedicated to global dissemination of ideas is not only counter-intuitive but also highly ironic. If the Information Highway cannot carry information, then what do we call it? Somehow the Information Cul de Sac just doesn’t cut it. Certainly, protection of intellectual property is valid but let’s hope we can accomplish protection and increase our worldly knowledge at the same time.

Pushing The Expression Envelope: Semiotics

In yesterday's blog, I discussed the expressive content of sound, noise, and music. Yes, even ring-tones have expressive content. To find that something has expressive content is important when it comes to freedom of expression rights under s.2(b) of the Charter. If a sound or gesture does not have expressive content, then it will not be protected. Even if it does have expressive content, the court will be more concerned with an infringement if the expression goes toward fulfilling a Charter value such as self-fulfillment or democratic entitlement. Of course, the government can still restrict that right if justified under s.1 of the Charter.

The Supreme Court of Canada suggests that expressive content, not only depends upon the purpose of the expression, but is also dependent on the place of that communication. Therefore, expressive content must also depend upon the source of that communication: human manipulation as opposed to a pure environmental source. 

On that basis, let's push the expression envelope, so to speak, and think about the expressive content of symbols. Semiotics is defined generally by writer and one-time Professor of Semiotics, Umberto Eco, as the "study of signs." Signs can be words, sounds, images, gestures, objects, body language or really anything which stands for something else. According to Roland Barthes, the linguistic philosopher who created a postmodern view of semiotics, all of these signs in the modern world are really a complex association of "language" or a "system of signification." Thus, the peace symbol emblazoned on an American flag during the Vietnam War is expression as well as the dancing men in the Sherlock Holmes mystery.

But how about numbers? Numbers are symbols and form a language. Numbers can express weight, time, and amount. Numbers have expressive content and meaning. In a world of technology, the expressive content of numbers is important and perhaps of crucial significance in today's information highway. presently, the legal community has focused on the intellectual property aspects of information and have treated numbers as property. However, as expressive symbols, information or data may be viewed as more than receptacles but as having intrinsic expressive value under s.2(b) of the Charter.

Who knows, perhaps in the postmodern world of the future, the Jetsons will be expressing themselves freely in a numeric world protected by the Charter.