Politicians don’t understand the internet

As someone who uses the internet exhaustively, both as part of my work and for personal reasons, such as maintaining this blog, I am of course concerned about the various pieces of legislation governments bring forward that seek to either control how people use the internet, or invade individual privacy online. Whether known by an acronym (SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, etc.) or a bill number (C-30, C-11), they are all cause for concern.

I won’t attempt to explain why these bills are problematic. There are far more qualified persons out there already doing just that, for example, Canada’s Michael Geist. If you don’t read Geist’s blog, you should. You can also follow him on Twitter. What interests me more is why do governments regularly and persistently introduce such flawed legislation when it comes to anything involving the internet? This is endemic of all governments, regardless of which party (or group of parties) is in power.

One of the best blog posts I’ve read of late which attempts to explain why governments bring forward such poor legislation is this one by the UK’s Paul Bernal. Bernal identifies four main reasons why digital policy is always so bad:

  1. Governments don’t understand the internet;
  2. Governments don’t understand the entertainment industry;
  3. Governments don’t understand law; and
  4. Governments don’t understand privacy.

I will let you read Bernal’s blog post for his explanations of the above. I want to focus on the first point – governments don’t understand the internet. In fact, I would say more broadly that politicians in general don’t understand the internet.

I recently started doing some research for a post on how different legislatures approach the use of computers, smartphones and other such devices in the Chamber. Part of that research included reading through the evidence of the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs from 20 April 2010. The committee was investigating “new technologies and their impact on House and committee proceedings”. This arose from an incident wherein one MP had tweeted from the floor of the House about the absence of another MP. For the uninitiated, Members are not allowed to refer to another Member’s absence in the House, however, there are no rules prohibiting sending that information by email or text message or posting it on Twitter.

As I read through the transcript from that meeting, I was struck but comments made by some of the committee members as well as Speaker and Clerk of the House of Commons, who were appearing before the committee. It was quite clear that the concepts of “Twitter”, “Facebook” and in some cases, the internet in general, were rather foreign to them. For example:

“My feeling was that since Mr. Galipeau was actually Twittering from his seat in the House, it should have been ruled out of order.” – Mr. Tom Lukiwski (Regina-Lumsden-Lake Centre, CPC)

“I’m not particularly good at computers anyway and I can’t use one. There’s one in front of me, but the clerks run it. I have no mouse or anything. I can’t do a thing on it except look, and I point out errors, so that’s about the extent of my stuff.” – the Hon. Peter Milliken, Speaker.

“We have seen, though, a couple of instances – both, frankly, from the government side – where it’s been discovered that members have either Twittered or tweeted about the proceedings going on…” – Tom Lukiwski

“Is typing a note on Twitter, or tweeting – however you do that, I don’t know – different from going out and saying, …” – Speaker Milliken.

“I am technologically illiterate, or almost illiterate, but I know that when a posting goes up on Twitter, the time it goes up is indicated. So if you can prove that a member was in the chamber at six minutes past two, when he Twittered who was present and who was absent, you can say he did it from the floor of the House, which is unacceptable.” – Mr. Michel Guimond (Montmorency- Charlevoix-Haute-Cote-Nord, BQ).

There are many more examples, but you get the idea. The lack of understanding of how social media functions is quite obvious.

More recently, the Canadian Public Safety Minister, the Hon. Vic Toews, raised a point of privilege alleging interference of his ability to discharge his responsibilities following the posting of a series of videos on Youtube by “Anonymous” which included threats should the government proceed with Bill C-30, An Act to enact the Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act and to amend the Criminal Code and other Acts. The Speaker, in a rather unfortunate ruling, found a prima facie case of privilege:

I have carefully reviewed the online videos in which the language used does indeed constitute a direct threat to the Minister in particular, as well as all other Members. These threats demonstrate a flagrant disregard of our traditions and a subversive attack on the most fundamental privileges of this House. As your Speaker and the guardian of those privileges, I have concluded that this aspect- the videos posted on the Internet by Anonymous – therefore constitutes a prima facie question of privilege and I invite the Minister to move his motion.

That motion was to refer the matter to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, which has held three hearings to date on the matter. It was quite clear that members of the committee really didn’t understand who or what “Anonymous” is, and that trying to bring the person/persons/group to justice was pretty much a complete waste of time. More often than not, the committee hearings deviated into discussions of personal computer security (e.g. keep your anti-virus software updated, don’t click on suspicious links and use a firewall!).

The first hearing held, on 28 March 2012, included House of Commons Clerk Audrey O’Brien, Chief Information Officer Louis Bard and Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers as witnesses. Committee member Tom Lukiwski asked to hear an assessment of how vulnerable MPs are, both on Parliament Hill and in their constituency offices, ” if Anonymous wants to hack in”  to which the Clerk replied that the alleged threats by “Anonymous” “really had nothing to do with the network. This was something posted on YouTube, so it’s completely outside our control or our environment.” Other committee members then proceeded to ask about the security of their computers on the Hill, in their ridings, at home, and what happens when they travel internationally – how secure are their devices then – which again, have nothing to do with the question of privilege at hand, which is whether tying the future publication of details of the minister’s private life to a specific act – in this case, proceeding with Bill C-30, constitutes an attempt to influence House proceedings. MP Laurie Hawn said of “Anonymous”: “they’re like the Taliban: we’ll never run out of them; they’re always going to be there.”  Another MP, Bob Zimmer, invites “Anonymous” to dialogue with him on Twitter, while another, Marc Garneau, asks if there are any checks on Youtube or can anyone post anything they want.

The one sensible intervention comes from MP Alexandrine Latendresse. She acknowledges that the direct threats against the minister came from an organization so intangible, it can’t even be described as such, and consequently she asks isn’t it possible that no action can be taken? Clerk O’Brien agrees entirely. In response to another committee member, Ms. O’Brien says that “frankly I’m not sure that seeking out a culprit as such wouldn’t be a giant waste of time, because I think that the nature of these attacks, as I understand it and from the reading that I’ve done, is that they’re extremely fluid.”

The second hearing, on 29 March, wasn’t much better, although some members of the committee seem to have finally grasped the futility of trying to identify and punish “Anonymous”. The Minister targetted by “Anonymous”, Vic Toews, appeared before the Committee and when MP Tom Lukiwski acknowledges that it might be “outright impossible” to identify and punish Anonymous and asks Toews what advice he has for the committee regarding how to proceed, Toews replies that he vehemently disagreed with what Clerk O’Brien’s comment in the first hearing that it was a giant waste of time:

I read with interest the comments of the Clerk, indicating that this study may be a “giant waste of time”. Those were her words. I couldn’t disagree more. In terms of its impact on the democratic process, studying this issue is not a waste of time. I couldn’t disagree more. Whether or not the committee is ultimately successful in drawing any conclusions on who’s behind this attack, I think the House should be examining preventive or safeguard measures to protect members.

This is an issue that crosses party and ideological lines. Just this past weekend, we saw an Internet attack on the electronic voting system used to choose the new leader of the NDP. In my opinion, it is a very frightening prospect, especially as Canadians are looking more and more to Internet voting and Internet advances, to see our democracy being threatened when we attempt to use new mechanisms that will involve more people in the democratic process. I think all Canadians should be concerned by these types of threats posed to our democracy by these online bullies and thugs who, in fact, are intimidating the democratic process.

Various committee members repeatedly asked Mr. Toews what he expected the committee should or could do, with Toews making references to looking at “how the computer and Internet impact on the institutional integrity of Parliament”, and admitted that he wasn’t “an expert on the computer and the Internet”. MP Chris Charlton compared the “Anonymous” videos to a “21st-century version of an anonymous letter” and asked Mr. Toews “If someone in the 1970s or 1980s sent an anonymous letter with the exact same message, what would have happened?” Toews replied:

Certainly, there would have been a criminal investigation, but there may well have been certain steps that the House might have taken. The actual mechanism by which the threat is being conveyed is a new phenomenon for members of Parliament. How do we respond to something like this? Is it acceptable because we don’t have the technological tools to ferret out those who are responsible? Is there nothing we can do? Maybe that will be the conclusion of the committee, but I don’t think that an investigation by this committee is a waste of time.

The third session took place on 3 April, but as of this writing, the transcripts are not yet available online.

I won’t quote more, but if you take the time to read through the transcripts from these meetings, the one impression you’ll be left with is that the majority of members of the committee are rather clueless not just about the nature of “Anonymous”, but about most aspects of internet culture.  It isn’t surprising however, that so many MPs are this clueless about our brave new digital world. The average age of the committee members is 55. There are six members of the committee in their 60s, one in his 50s, four in their 40s, and only one member, Ms. Latendresse, is under 30. At 28, she is undoubtedly far more attuned to everything internet than are most of her colleagues, and this was reflected in her line of questioning.

If MPs struggle to understand the concept of “Anonymous”, and can’t easily differentiate between hacking someone’s computer and uploading a video to Youtube, it’s then not at surprising that they inevitably come up with legislation that completely fails to fully understand what the internet is all about and how “real” people use it. It isn’t simply an online mall or a dark shadowy place where some people engage in questionable activity. This is obviously problematic since there is very little today that doesn’t depend on or involve the internet in some way.

There is also the question of how knowledgeable are the civil servants who advise ministers on internet policy. I don’t know what the median age of the civil service is, but I’m willing to wager there aren’t too many in their mid-twenties to early thirties.

Of course there are some MPs in every party who do get the internet. I don’t for one instant mean to tar and feather all MPs as computer illiterate – some are quite net savvy and do actually understand life online. They need to be at the forefront whenever any political party attempts to formulate policy involving the internet.

On the whole, I can’t disagree with any of the recommendations Paul Bernal put forward in his post, which I linked to above. For those who didn’t read it, I will paraphrase, removing the UK-specific references:

  1. Admit they have a problem. Governments need to take a long, hard look at themselves.
  2. Start talking to the right people – and at the right time. Who really does understand the internet? Civil society, hackers, maybe even some academics – understand it much, much more than politicians, and than industry lobby groups.
  3. When the real experts talk, listen!
  4. Put the lobby groups back in their place. These industry groups need to be listening to others themselves!
  5. Be willing to admit you were wrong. It’s hard, because politicians seem to be under the impression that changing your mind is completely unacceptable. It shouldn’t be – if you find out you’re wrong about something, admit it!
  6. Let those within your party who DO understand it take a bigger role.
  7. Be brave enough to face up to the security pressure groups, both internal and external. At the moment, just the barest whisper of the word ‘terrorism’ seems to make politicians of almost all parties quiver at the knees and sacrifice their own principles and OUR rights.
  8. Start to trust real people a bit more… and then real people might begin to trust you a bit more.

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