Global movement of Internet users create a crowdsourced agenda for free expression

Internet users around the world have come together to shape a new agenda for how we share and collaborate online. This week, OpenMedia is launching a study called Our Digital Future: A Crowdsourced Agenda for Free Expression that draws on input from over 300,000 people in 155 countries around the globe. Together with a broad network of civil society organizations and experts, these concerned citizens have weighed in on how we can create sensible copyright rules that support free expression in our digitally connected era.

Just days ago, Canadians were reminded of the importance of shaping balanced copyright rules, following the leak of a self-serving government proposal to carve out a copyright exemption for political attack ads. Although copyright should never be used to stifle free political expression, every Canadian should benefit from sensible copyright rules, not just political parties.

It was an especially hypocritical proposal coming from a government that is actively driving forward secret Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks with the U.S. and 10 other Asia-Pacific nations. The TPP includes draconian changes in copyright rules that would overwrite Canadian law, invade the privacy of Canadian Internet users, and force Canadian ISPs to act as Internet police, monitoring content and even removing entire websites.

The launch of the Our Digital Future report is timed to coincide with a crucial upcoming round of TPP negotiations in Canberra, Australia. Talks for the TPP are reaching a climax, with both U.S. President Obama and Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb saying they want a deal in place by the end of the year. It's never been more important for citizen voices to be heard -- until now, only industry lobbyists and government bureaucrats have had a seat at the table.

Our organization has spent years helping to raise awareness of the dangers posed by the TPP. But we know it's never enough to merely campaign against something. Instead it's imperative to advance a positive, citizen-driven alternative. There is no better way to expose the illegitimacy of secretive, top-down negotiations like the TPP than through participatory processes that empower Internet users everywhere.

That's why, just over two years ago, we embarked on a project to crowdsource a positive alternative to the TPP -- what would become the Our Digital Future report. While we have engaged in large crowdsourcing projects before, this is the largest to date.

The centrepiece of the project was a drag-and-drop tool that empowered over 40,000 participants to shape their own rules for sharing and collaborating online. We also organized distributed events with our international partners in the Fair Deal Coalition, consulted with international copyright experts, collected citizen comments on the potential impacts of the TPP, and even live-streamed citizen voices directly to TPP negotiators in Auckland.

Together we built a network of educators, innovators, advocates, and everyday citizens who have shaped positive solutions for safeguarding the open Internet. Here are the key recommendations they came up with:

Recommendation 1: Respect creators.

Sixty-seven per cent of respondents in our crowdsourcing process wanted to see at least three-quarters of revenue from the sale of creative works to go directly to artists and creators. They also desire new ways for creators to share their work, flexible exemptions, and a rich public domain. "These laws were originally put in place to protect the rights of the artist, yet in these days, it's only the producers/publishers/etc. that benefit." - LaTora Prince, U.S.

Recommendation 2: Prioritize free expression.

Nearly three-quarters of respondents selected "Prioritize Free Expression" as their top priority. Respondents proposed a four-pronged agenda for copyright, including: preventing censorship; protecting fair use and fair dealing; promoting access and affordability; and creating clear rules to govern the sharing of knowledge and culture online. "On the Internet, free expression, creativity, education, public discourse and debate thrive like never before -- The people of the world finally have a voice." – Chris, Sweden

Recommendation 3: Embrace democratic process.

Over 72 percent of respondents want copyright rules created through "a participatory multi-stakeholder process...that includes Internet users, creators, and copyright law experts". Respondents decried closed-door processes like the TPP, strongly preferring participatory, democratic, and transparent forums. "I want a platform where citizens can vote on specifically worded issues, and vote on amendments to the specific wording. Popular decisions brought to lawmakers and become policy. A democracy that keeps up with communications technology." - Sean, Canada

The contrast between what citizens want, and what TPP negotiators are pushing forward, couldn't be clearer. The powerful global institutions shaping the TPP are using anti-democratic tactics of exclusion and secrecy to ensure political disengagement on an agreement that will significantly impact our everyday lives. These top-down bureaucracies and institutions eschew open and participatory public engagement on the issues -- which extend well beyond "trade" issues -- in favor of backroom meetings with unelected and unaccountable lobbyists and bureaucrats.

However, the Our Digital Future report, and the community that built it, stand as a powerful counter to the top-down dynamics driving the TPP. And this is just one example of the potential for new open and participatory decision-making. Consider the case of the Spanish Green Party, which used a new app called Agora to crowdsource votes on a transparency bill. Or the DemocracyOS platform, which is being used by Tunisian activists working to establish a new constitution. Once citizens take the initiative and come up with a positive vision, it makes it very difficult for politicians and decision-makers to ignore it.

People around the world are coming together to expose the illegitimacy of closed-door decision-making processes. These movements are demanding decision-makers abandon their regimes of secrecy, and embrace the open and participatory values of the Internet when it comes to shaping our collective future.

To learn more about what Internet users have to say about how we access knowledge and share culture in a digital age, we invite you to read the full report at https://OpenMedia.org/DigitalFuture

Steve Anderson is the Executive Director of OpenMedia.ca, a community-based organization that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet. Josh Tabish is the campaigns coordinator with OpenMedia.ca. A version of this article originally appeared in the November edition of the CCPA Monitor.

Digital Freedom Update is a monthly column from OpenMedia looking at digital policy issues, including free expression, access to the Internet, and online privacy. OpenMedia is a community-based organization that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet.

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