Canadian Internet policy; tapping into the zeitGeist

by Maria on June 21, 2004

Ahead of next week’s federal election in Canada, Michael Geist has a revealing piece in today’s Toronto Star that compares the positions on Internet/technology issues of the main Canadian parties. The Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) at the University of Ottawa and Digital Copyright Canada surveyed the Liberals, NDP, Conservatives and Greens on their views on IP protection, file-sharing, open source, identity cards and use of Internet materials in education. The results are not what a classic right-left divide might predict.

The parties in the middle (Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois) firmly favour rightsholders’ interests over those of users and service providers when it comes to IP, and the Conservatives and Greens support a much less heavy-handed approach.

Several explanations come instantly to mind:

(1) Most political parties don’t understand technology issues well enough to figure out where they really stand on them, so ideology isn’t a good predictor of policy in this area. Secondary point; tech issues are too minority to really matter in a general election.

(2) IP/open source issues typically pit homogeneous, well organised, connected and funded user groups against heterogeneous, poor and largely latent user groups, meaning government policies benefit the well-organised few at the expense of the mostly apathetic many. These results may tell us more about who the rightsholders bothered to lobby, rather than what the parties themselves might think.

(3) Centre-right parties are unpredictable on tech issues, depending on whether their libertarian or authoritarian streaks are in the know or the ascendent. Social democrats can be fooled into thinking any policy with technology in it is a good thing, especially if it ‘encourages innovation’.

(4) My understanding of the Canadian left-right divide may be less than comprehensive….

Full responses to the CIPPIC questionaire and links to other organisations’ responses are available at



John James 06.21.04 at 3:43 pm

In truth, I think IP issues send traditional political economy – right/left divide – into a headspin. In France, for instance, there has always been strong socialist support for ‘author’s rights’ – viewing copyright as tool for protecting authors against the rampages of commerce. Counter-intuitively perhaps, a strong vein of libertarian thought has consistently doubted the legitimacy of IP rights. The following quote from Hayek is illustrative-

“The slow selection of trial and error of a system of rules delimiting individual ranges of control over different resources has created a curious position. Those very intellectuals who are generally inclined to question those forms of material property which are indispensable for the efficient organisation of the material means of production have become the most enthusiastic supporters of certain immaterial property rights invented only relatively recently, having to do, for example, with literary productions and technological inventions (i.e. copyrights and patents).

The difference between these and other kinds of property rights is this: while ownership of material goods guides the use of scarce means to their most important uses, in the case of immaterial goods such as literary productions and technological inventions the ability to produce them is also limited, yet once they have come into existence, they can be indefinitely multiplied and can be made scarce only by law in order to create an inducement to produce such ideas. Yet it is not obvious that such forced scarcity is the most effective way to stimulate the human creative process.”

(The Fatal Conceit (Routledge, 1988))


des von bladet 06.21.04 at 5:43 pm

“zeitGeist”? Why?


Maria 06.21.04 at 8:48 pm

eh, coz it’s about an article about a current state of affairs by a legal guru called Michael Geist.

I mean, I’m not expecting to win a prize for good punning or anything, but in my defence, I’ll say that I forgot to put a title on this entry at all and had to think that one up while the thing was uploading…

More seriously, that’s a smashing quote, John James – thank you. It also throws into relief the difficulty parties on the right have with IP issues (and, ingeneral, uncompetitive markets dominated by one or two dominant players); when and how should governments guarantee exclusive rights to some players,and what kind of behaviour or conditions merit regulatory or other kinds of intervention.

When you think about it, it’s downright odd to have the left calling for action to (re-)create competitive marketplaces.


jack pugh 06.22.04 at 4:29 am

Was Hayek suggesting that there is a substantial difference between material goods and products of the intellect that gives one precendent over the other regarding property rights? How would these paragraphs apply to his own work?

My own untested thesis is that, Right or Left, where one lands on the issues of internet regulation is probably a good indicator of where one stands, generally, on civil libertarian questions.


John James 06.22.04 at 10:41 am

There unquestionably is a very important difference between material and intellectual objects – the former require some rule based system of allocation (be that private property rights or state ownership) whereas the latter do not. Thus from Hayek’s viewpoint, material property rights were part of the natural order of things, whereas he suspected that IP rights were government interference in the market place by the back door. Strange as it may seem, a ‘perfect’ market in intellectual objects would entail no property rights at all. The only economic case for IP rights is that without them, there will be insufficient incentives for authors and inventors to create. Hayek however questioned whether, as an empirical matter, this was in fact true.


Taylor 06.23.04 at 4:39 am

I’m not sure why Maria refers to the NDP and the Bloc as “parties in the middle”, since both are social democratic. As for the Greens, they seem to have moved to the right, or at least the centre, under the new leadership of a former Tory. See, for example, the piece by former Green national leader Joan Russow at the site. Russow is endorsing the NDP, whose environmental policies are also viewed by both Greenpeace and the Sierra Club as greener than Green.


jassy 06.25.04 at 9:19 am

My own untested thesis is that, Right or Left, where one lands on the issues of internet regulation is probably a good indicator of where one stands, generally, on civil libertarian questions.

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