Blind Man with a Pistol

Virtual Victory

First: Go read Michael Geist on why Jim Prentice’s digital rights copyright bill is a betrayal.

Then: register your disapproval here and join the facebook group here.

What is most interesting about the mobilized outrage protests against Bill C-61 (what Geist cynically refers to as the Canadian version of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the less strict American digital rights bill that the U.S. defeated) is that they have proven the viability of online, virtual protests. It appears to be a very real possibility that the growing facebook group, the online petition, and the automatically generated emails to MPs will change this bill. Even if the bill passes (with the Liberal Party of Canada’s usual strategy of sputtering anger followed by abstention) the online protest has educated thousands while inspiring political action and demand for change.

When politically motivated online protests emerged a few years ago, they were dismissed as a watered-down version of the marches and sit-ins of the 1960s. This is possibly true, but it is also true that contemporary politics are a watered-down version of their postwar counterparts. In fact, it was easy to be cynical about current marches against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Slavoj Žižek is fond of pointing out, most protests nowadays are virtual and toothless.

The big demonstrations in London and Washington against the US attack on Iraq a few years ago offer an exemplary case of this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protesters saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimise it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!’

Žižek is the comedic provocateur of philosophy, so perhaps it’s best to take him skeptically. But it is difficult to rid ourselves of the defeatism and pessimism that came with the failure of the anti-war protests to actually stop the war. And while it appears to me that there is a significant disparity of degree between protesting the slaughter of hundreds of thousands and digital copyright, the chance for success for the (actually) virtual protest is greater than the (virtually) actual one.

It is possible that this virtual action is finding traction because it occurs in the medium it affects. But more than this, I think it demonstrates that there is no virtual anymore.  Or, rather, it’s all virtual. After all, isn’t the intention of the digital lock provisions in C-61 in part, to make the virtual physical property? To deny digital proliferation online and shore up its singularity and uniqueness? I’ve always been suspicious of appeals to the “real world” (perhaps, as a graduate student of literature, that’s a matter of psychological denial) and this latest online protest seems to confirm those suspicions. Virtual political action isn’t opposed to the real world, it is the real world.

Cyberspace Cops

Back in March, I referred to case of alleged academic dishonesty between Chris Avenir, facebook, and Ryerson Univeristy as a question of policing, surveillance and coercion. Ryerson University, I argued, was attempting to colonize cyberspace in their interests, while the students’ conception of what one should expect online was very different. Well, now it seems, this case has surfaced outside of academia. And the stakes seem a bit higher:

Via Google News I hear of a new Facebook Application: GMP Updates. The application, also known as “The Greater Manchester Police Updates,” gives you a feed of crime updates and links to a form for reporting crimes, according to the article. It’s the first time I’ve seen a law enforcement based Facebook application…

Law enforcement use of applications will significantly expand the reach of what law enforcement can see, and also provide a more surreptitious viewing ability. It’s been noted that some 90% of popular applications have access to more information than they need, but this seems like a significant first — giving law enforcement more access than it needs. Why the expansion? Because application providers get access to just about all of your Facebook information, as described in the “Platform Application Terms of Use“…

That’s not all that is happening. When you add an application, by default it can see what you can see on Facebook. So you’re also sharing your friends’ information with law enforcement. Your friends may opt-out of this sharing, but until they do you’ll be the eyes and ears of law enforcement by adding a law enforcement-based Facebook app.

This maneuver by the Manchester Police, while framed as a great way to “crack crime,” should render blatantly obvious that the Internet is not public space. It is land up for grabs, and the Manchester Police are making their play for it. The kind of logic that absolves Ryerson and the GMP of their aggressive power play is the same kind that George W. Bush and his cronies enact to justify their wire-tap scheme, roundly condemned as an assault on civil liberties. Why, when it comes to cyberspace, should we think any differently?

Hat-tip to April Reign.

The Avenir of Education and Cyberspace

By now you should have heard the story of Ryerson University, facebook, and Chris Avenir. While many would prefer to boil the story down to the question did he or didn’t he, most people realize that more is at stake than a single instance of academic dishonesty.

The first issue that springs to mind is one of policing: policing, surveillance and coercion. The administration at Ryerson University believes that because they can access facebook and the Internet, they should be permitted to use whatever evidence they find there in cases of student discipline. The internet, as far as the University is concerned, is public space. One hundred and forty-seven students question that assumption.

I sympathize with Avenir’s professor, whose generous gesture to the students to offer a take-home assignment in lieu of an exam backfired. But her anger should not signify betrayal by the students, but rather her own failure as an educator to predict the students’ response. If she did not want the students to collaborate she enjoys access to a simple solution: hold an in-class exam. The students simply outmaneuvered her attempt to randomize each assignment with a unique selection of questions from a list of problems. It is as unfortunate as it was inevitable.

The University responded by charging Avenir with one count of academic misconduct and 146 counts—one for each group member—of “enabling.” This response is reactionary and panicked. It signals an administration clueless as to what the Internet portends and a heavy-handed attempt to claim cyberspace for itself. They are attempting to foreclose any future student forays into facebook and stamp-out any dissenters. It is, in short, a land grab.

Society has designated, arbitrarily, certain aspects of our life public and certain aspects private. As new technologies appear and as social conventions develop, these arbitrary boundaries become redrawn. The mass-produced automobile, for example, turned individual travel from a public into a private affair for the masses. When the telephone first entered public use, users were reluctant to use it, citing stage fright. Historically, those with power control how this redesignation occurs.

In his study Becoming Modern in Toronto: The Industrial Exhibition and the Shaping of a Late Victorian Culture (U of Toronto P, 1997), Keith Walden outlines a similar disconnect in cultural and technological expectations:

On 2 September 1892 Hannah Heron was struck by one of Toronto’s new electric trolleys in a downtown residential neighbourhood…Shortly before 3 p.m. she was being escorted to the Church Street car by her host’s companion, who saw the trolley approaching. As they stood on the northeast corner of the intersection, Heron was told she had to board at the southwest. She raced across the street, intending to cross diagonally. Recognizing the danger she was in, the driver rang a warning bell, but the noise disoriented her. She stopped in the middle of the street. Too late to brake now, the motorman started to shout, increasing her bewilderment. Finally, she darted in front of the car, which knocked her down and passed over both her legs below the knee. She was carried back to her aunt’s house, where she died five hours later.


When Hannah Heron stepped into the middle of Church Street, she was articulating a particular understanding of what a Toronto roadway meant—of the nature of the vehicles likely to be encountered there, of the dangers that needed to be considered, of appropriate ways of moving through that space, of the status of a human body relative to all these things. Unfortunately, her understanding, based on past experience, was contested by the street railway company, a much more powerful entity, which wanted to run cars at speeds faster than had been possible with horse-drawn wagons. By changing just one element in the situation, the entire web of signification had to be reknit…such questions, which went to the heart of the meaning of the street, bodies, machines, and citizenship, all had to be renegotiated because hierarchies of speed and power had changed. (3-6)

Like the fate of Ms. Heron, at stake is a question and dispute over reading—over signification. We can accept uncritically the University’s insistence that it has a right to police the Internet and affirm their dismissal of 147 students as “naive,” or, we can respect that the students oppositional worldview may hold merit. Significantly, the students of Ryerson—a great number more now than Avenir’s 146 co-conspirators—have come out in force behind Avenir and in contradistinction to the administration. Consider too that younger generations tend to understand the cultural implications of new technologies far earlier than the older, and in fact, facebook was originally created exclusively for students’—not administrators’—use. Unlike Ms. Heron’s ill-fated clash with the Toronto street railway company, the debate on how we read cyberspace is not yet closed, nor is it as starkly drawn.

If, like me, you find the increasingly popular state practice of universal surveillance odious, you should resist the University’s appropriation of cyberspace. In fact, I hold the University to a higher standard than I would the government, so I would expect such an institution to resist such practices actively rather to capitulate to them. Free Avenir.