Episode 187 – Digital Rights & Digital Privacy | Interview With David Christopher, Communications Director at Open Media

Episode 187 – Digital Rights & Digital Privacy | Interview With David Christopher, Communications Director at Open Media

In this podcast David talks about the work his company is doing to keep the Internet open, affordable, and more importantly surveillance-free. Listen to the audio to find out how Open Media runs community-driven campaigns to educate and empower people to safeguard their digital rights & digital privacy. Make sure you subscribe to the podcast and post a review.


Richard: Hello, this is Richard Jacobs with Speakeasy Authority Marketing. Today, I have got a really interesting interview for you. I am going to be speaking with David Christopher of Open Media. And Open Media is an organization out of Canada that works in a grass roots fashion to bring awareness to various issues, political issues, trade issues etc. And speaking again with David Christopher, how are you doing, Sir?

David Christopher: Hello and thank you very much for having me.

Richard: There are quite a few people in your organization; can you tell me quickly about what your position is in Open Media and what you do specifically?

David Christopher: Sure. My name is David Christopher, I am the Communications Manger with Open Media. I have worked here now for just over 3 and a half years. So I look after a lot of our public facing communications, a lot of our media work. I am involved in one way or another in pretty much all the campaigns that we’ve been running over the last 3.5 years and yes, I am very excited to be able to chat about some of the highlights of our work in the last while.

Richard: Okay. And I know you are based in Canada, I get your emails and communications in the US so I know you are heavily involved in the US as well. Any other countries in which you guys work on issues?

David Christopher: Yes, absolutely. I mean we are pretty much operating on a global basis now. We started off as a very small organization here in Vancouver and on the west coast of Canada but since then, we have really grown. One thing that we’ve discovered pretty quickly was that the kind of digital rights issues such as having an open and affordable and surveillance free internet, those kinds of issues that we were working towards in Canada, or also challenges being faced by people right around the world and each county’s challenges when it comes to digital rights are really interconnected. So that’s what initially prompted us to start getting involved on a more international scale initially with, for example, our campaign against the transpacific partnerships copyrights provisions, but since then we’ve taken on a range of work in the US. You probably recall the big battle over Net Neutrality rules a couple of years ago. We were heavily involved in that along side a number of other groups. We’re also really involved in copyright reform in the European Union at the moment. We’ve got some very bad ideas coming out of the European Commission over there and we actually have staff members on the ground in the EU working on those issues. So yes, we are growing and expanding and I think that’s the reflection of how important these issues are and how much people care.

Richard: Okay. And what are some two or three current issues that people may or may not know about and how it will affect them adversely in your opinion as these issues succeed without any intervention?

David Christopher: One really interesting one that we’ve taken on over the last few months is that the Supreme Court of Canada case that’s going to have really profound implications for people’s ability to access information and to share information online and not just those implications would not just be here in Canada but globally. So we at Open Media along side a number of other organizations have intervened in that case. It’s between Google on the one hand, a company called Equisec on the other and we’re not taking sides between those two but we are asking the course to set up firm framework that will protect people’s right to free expression online and of course an important component of right to free expression is our ability to access information online. The case all revolves around whether a court in one country such as Canada has the right to order an international company such as Google to sensor search results from a search engine not just in Canada but globally. So of course the implications there are, if that were to go through, incredibly concerning because you could see, for example, courts on the other side of the world ordering American companies to take certain content that would otherwise be accessible to Americans or you could see American courts ordering companies in other countries to take contents. So we really want to try and knit this in the bud and set a proper framework that recognizes sort of the global nature of the internet and how important the internet is as a tool for citizens all over the world to access information and express themselves freely.

Richard: That’s pretty serious because if you have countries like China, Russia, Iran etc. that are known for censorship in the state controlling the internet, giving them the chance to intervene would be pretty bad.

David Christopher: Yes, that’s definitely one of the things we’re worried about and we know as well that your Supreme Court of Canada is a fairly influential court, so obviously its ruling would only have affect, legal affect here in Canada but it would set a precedent, it would set an example that other courts around the world could be inclined to follow. So that’s the big priority for us. We’re also — and for years now, we’ve been lots of work around surveillance and online privacy issues. I think probably most of your listeners would be aware of what Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers have revealed about how government spy agencies not just in the US but also here in Canada, many other countries around the world are actually using the internet almost as a tool of mass surveillance, collecting vast quantities of personal information from law-abiding citizens with no real distinction as to whether someone might have raised a red flag or done something wrong that you could be completely innocent and yet you’re having your personal information stored and gathered in government database, that’s an issue of huge concern for us and we’ve been running any number of campaigns both here in Canada and also globally.

Richard: Okay. Andy past campaign or current one that was your favorite or you felt was the single most important one and why?

David Christopher: That’s a great question. I do actually have personal favors. About a year and a half ago here in Canada, we embarked on a big crowd sourcing program. We were faced with all these privacy threats partly from the kind of online spying that I’ve just described but also partly because the Canadian government was bringing forward quite dangerous legislation that gave the spy agencies pretty enormous power to collect information and even to act on that information. So we were faced with this really tough, a very challenging climate for online privacy. And while on the one hand, we certainly wanted to push back against the sort of overreach by the intelligence agencies, on the other hand, we felt there was a bigger problem here that we actually needed a positive agenda that we don’t just need to rollback to kind of spying that’s taking place. We actually need to strengthen privacy rules for all citizens because certainly here in Canada and also in pretty much I think many other countries around the world, our privacy safeguards were developed for a different era, they were developed for an era in which people would right to each other using pen and paper and the mail. They would develop for an era where a lot of communication just took place using landline and telephone calls. So the result of that is that we’ve got much strong privacy protections for those more traditional forms of communication than we do for our online forms of communication. So we actually reached out to Canadians, over 100,000 people took part in one way or another and helped us shape a really positive agenda for what strong privacy rules could look like. And we’ve taken that forwarded, we turned it into, I think it’s about a 60 or 70-page report setting out pretty detailed proposals across the whole range of areas and while that project was specific to Canada, a lot of the lessons and a lot of the recommendations are also relevant worldwide. So that’s one I think I’m particularly — certainly, when I look back on the last few years, that’s when I’m particularly proud of.

Richard: Okay. And what methods would you use in a campaign? You spoke about directly connecting with the Canadian citizens, did you use email, phone calls, call a politician, email a politician, donations, what kind of mixture did you guys use?

David Christopher: We used pretty much every tool we have at our disposal to try and make sure that the voices of citizens can be taken and placed before decision-makers, placed before the people who are making the calls on these kinds of important digital rights issues. So yes, and that can range from everything from your standard online petition which you know those can be more impactful than many people give them credits for. We’ve had upwards of — I think our largest petition had over half a million people on it for example, but we also create more sophisticated tools as well, tools that, for example, make it quite easy for you to get a letter into your local newspaper, tools that make it easy for you to write to your local representative, elected representative. We’ve even just actually rolled out a tool that let’s people submit input into a government consultation that’s taking place on privacy and security issues. I guess the common thread that links all of these kinds of tactics is simply our desire to make it as easy as possible for people to make their voice heard where it can’t. So we are all about leveraging the power of the internet and that kind of — what I think it’s really a democratizing way, ensuring that citizens do feel empowered to speak up when they disagree with something that the government is doing and kind of demystifying the process by which people can do that. And that does seem to resonate with people, I think that’s why we are seeing the growth that we have over the last few years.

Richard: Yes. I have seen some of these really interesting grass root stuff I’ve seen you guys do is use an issue, email your politician, here is their name, here is how to contact them. Everyone that email politician X and let them know you stand against this issue, or call this other one, call your representative and let them know you stand against this issue. Do those types of campaign work and how successful are they and what’s the result when a given official gets a flood of calls or a flood of emails?

David Christopher: They absolutely do work. Often the result of that the official will get in touch with us to at least let us know that they are listening. You can’t win every battle. A lot of these are political issues, sometimes certainly the previous federal government here, I was really going to help and I am bringing in new surveillance measures no matter how unpopular they are but in general, politicians are elected by their citizens, by their constituents. So if they get a flood of emails and phone calls from those constituents, from the voters, it would be a very unwise politician who would ignore that outpouring. So in general, we think we do find it a really — it does have impact. Most politicians worth their salt to anyone who wants to get reelected does have to sit up and take notice when their voters speak out and we are constantly, as I say, looking for new ways in which we can make sure that citizens voices do get heard.

Richard: Okay. What have you seen makes a successful campaign versus one that just doesn’t have any legs, any particulars that you noticed?

David Christopher: Yes. There are some commonalities. Often in the world of digital rights, you — these issues can initially appear as quite complex as very detailed, it’s often people for example who are proposing very negative changes to copyright law, they like to sort of mask that in all kinds of complicated policy speak in the hope that people won’t understand it and they’ll just have their way. So I think part of what we do is take those complex issues, we work with leading experts and academia here in Canada and around the world to really distil those issues down, make them clear, make them accessible, make it really obvious to people what’s at stake here and then that’s where we can then — once we do that, once we make it clear what the stakes are in any given issue, we find it then people do come on board, people really grasp it and people are motivated to speak out whether it’s a negative thing that we’re trying to stop or whether it’s a positive thing that we’re trying to push forward.

Richard: Okay. And have you surveyed your group, your constituents to see which issues they would like to see brought and you take outside feedback or is it you have a group of people that kind of decide the issues based on what’s going on in the world?

David Christopher: We’ve always been a very sort of grass root driven organization. That’s being baked into our DNA right from the start and all this is because of the work of our founder, Steve Anderson, who created Open Media I think 7 years ago, maybe 8 years ago. So no, we really, really place a very high priority on crowd sourcing input from our community. We do an annual survey of our entire support base and that’s what uproots of 750,000 people each in every year and that does give us — and we go around and we ask them what are the issues that matter most for you because when it comes to our staff, we are a small team, there is only so much that we can take on. And if we want to do things right, it really means putting in the time, putting in the effort. So we want to make sure that we’re putting our limited resources where they will have the most impact and also where on the issues that our communities that our supporters and internet users in general care most strongly about.

Richard: Okay. And this is probably an of course question but has Open Media been criticized publicly or attacked because of the work it’s trying to do?

David Christopher: Of course. Often these issues that we take on are challenging rules and that’s against very, very powerful vested interests, whether that’s a big telecom and monopolies trying to sure up their position and crush the competition, whether it’s powerful surveillance agencies pushing their own agenda often through life channels and drivers, whether that’s true old media giants trying to use copyright rules to sensor-free expression or to limit what people can — how people can share and collaborate online. So yes, certainly there is no shortage of criticism from most powerful interest but the best thing is that we often — we have so many people on our side that we can point to and say, “Look, 50,000 people disagree with you. We’ve got 50,000 people who actually want us to move in a more positive direction, who want us to rollback the surveillance days, who want us to ensure proper choice and competition in our telecom market”, so that we can get those very expensive monthly bills down, people who want to ensure that we can all share and work together online without the fear of unwarranted copyright lawsuits. So in general, that tends to be the kind of the conflict from which we find ourselves is where we’ve got a great massive citizens and internet users on the one side and then so powerful vested interest on the other side. And then often, it’s either a regulatory body or a government institution in the middle that will be making the call at the end of the day.

Richard: If there is an issue that someone feels strongly about and they let you guys know but you don’t have the capacity to do it but there are even bigger issues that you are working on, what do you recommend someone does?

David Christopher: We work really closely with the whole range of good partnerships with other groups that we’ve built up over the last few years. So almost always, if someone approaches us with a concern, that’s either just something we can’t take online at that moment or often it’s something that’s out of scope for our digital rights mandate, perhaps it’s a privacy issue but it’s not really an online privacy issue. We’d almost always be able to recommend that that person you contact one of our partner groups who does which would work on the issues that they care about. Often as well we keep a watching eye on the whole range of these issues and challenges that are bubbling up pretty much everyday. The world of digital rights and freedoms is a very interesting and a constantly changing one. You have the guy responsible for our media work that every morning, I scan the media and then everyday, there are new developments on all the areas on which we work, so we’re careful to try and keep on top of all of those and even if it’s something that we can’t directly campaign on, we’d often use, for example, our social media channels to help raise awareness of those issues as well.

Richard: And so besides getting petitions together or getting people to call politicians, email them etc., do you use any legal type interventions? So in the US, that may be FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act) request or a amicus brief where you comment on a case. I don’t know the equivalent in Canada but do you actually employ legal tools that are implemented by attorneys, lawyers to make your voice heard more strongly?

David Christopher: Yes. As we’ve grown, especially over the last couple of years, we’ve increasingly started to get more involved in the kind of detailed substantial vigilant policy work that’s often necessary if we’re to have impact, for example, at a regulatory body or before courts. I spoke earlier about the intervention that we’ve made at the Supreme Court of Canada. We have an external legal counsel who’s been leading that process for us. We are also heavily involved, very often we find ourselves before the telephone regulator here in Canada, the CRCC, they’re equivalent to the FCC. And again, that requires a lot of very detailed policy and legal work that we’re either growing our capacity to take that on in us at Open Media but we’d also often work with top experts in Academia or just in the field to work together to pull those interventions together for us.

Richard: Okay. Just briefly, some of the partner organizations that you mentioned, if there is an issue that either is outside of your scope or you don’t have capacity to take on. Can you name a few as a resource to people?

David Christopher: Sure. I mean in the US the ones that would come most obviously to mind are electronic frontier foundation, they have been going for many, many years to support digital rights and rather like ourselves, they operate globally but they are based in the United States. We also find ourselves partnering with the platform on any number of campaigns, the ACLU (American Civil Liberty’s Union) would be another valuable partner of ours in a lot of our privacy work. They’ve supported some of our campaigns, we also find ourselves supporting theirs especially around issues of surveillance. There are other organizations like FreePress, Fight for the Future that we see as very valuable, American Partners, these are friends of ours. We often also share each other content, amplify each other’s campaigns so at the end of the day, we’re working — we’re often working in a common cause.

Richard: Okay. Where do you see open media going in the next 3 to 5 years as the bets are off?

David Christopher: That’s a fantastic question. That’s the one that often I wonder about myself, I think just over those 3 years, 3.5 years I’ve been here, I have seen this organization grow a great deal, I think, just in terms of internal capacity, our staff so we have over doubled or community is grown enormously, over recent years, we have started taking on much more international work. So I think those trends will continue. I think the sort of the stretch to the open internet that we are working against are continuing to multiply where really bad news coming out of a lot of countries when it does come to online privacy and surveillance, some very worrying laws being passed in countries like France, Australia, the UK is considering one at the moment so I think that’s going to be a big challenge for us and I think the whole area of copyrights and how we can make sure that copyright rules make sense in a digital, globally connected age, that is also increasingly going to be a live topic of discussion for many years to come. I believe you were seeing this in the European Union, we’re seeing this here in Canada and in many other jurisdictions around the world as well. And thirdly, the whole issue of net neutrality, the idea that the internet should be free and open, that should be a level playing field and an engine for economic innovation. That as well is a really key battleground we saw that with the huge and one of the most successful political battles that we’ve been involved in was at the FCC in the US couple of years ago on the issue of net neutrality when ourselves, many, many other groups, and millions of everyday American citizens all working together to ensure we could save net neutrality and in fact bring in stronger net neutrality rules and at the end of the day, that was the success in this case but we’re seeing threats to — we’re still seeing threats to net neutrality in the US but we’re also seeing those threats elsewhere in the world as well. So long story short, there is going to be a lot to keep us busy over the years ahead, I’m pretty confident about that.

Richard: One last issue I did want to ask you about is, ICANN, it was slated just on December 30th to potentially feed control from what I understand of the US — from the US of the internet to an international governing body. What do you see is happening with that situation and what do you think the implications are going to be if it does go global versus staying in the US?

David Christopher: From what I know of that issue, I think this is actually — and I have seen a lot of people posting quite scary things about this that this is handing over the internet to the Russians and the Chinese, that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. It does seem like that it’s a fairly sensible proposal that would put that take ICANN out from under the aegis of the state department, I believe it is, and into — more put it under the umbrella of a non-profit foundation that would be responsible for its activities. So I think it’s not an issue that we’ve delve terribly deeply into but I think some of the language that’s being used around this is inaccurate. I think what seems to be — being proposed is on the whole I think a fairly common sense approach.

Richard: Okay. So, to listeners to this podcast, how can they get involved with open media and your digital rights initiatives to support you?

David Christopher: Great. There are a number of ways. Firstly, you check out our website, it’s openmedia.org. At any given time, we’re often running several different campaigns around the world simultaneously, so if there are issues you’re particularly interested in such as privacy or copyright or the transpacific partnership, there are plenty of ways in which you can get involved, there are petitions and other tools. We also just use our website as a great platform for information sharing and we share articles on digital rights issues, on a whole range of digital rights issues from right across the world. People can also join our Facebook community. I think we’re over up to nearly 120 sites and people on Facebook now so it’s always a very lively forum for discussion, pretty much everything we post there can spark lively debates. We also have lively Twitter feed as well so those are both ways people can get involved. And finally, we have a weekly newsletter that we call the internet insider and again, instructions for signing up on that are found on our website at openmedia.org. If you join any one of our campaigns, if you, for example, sign a petition, then we make sure to keep you in the loop as that campaign develops, keep you up to date with all the latest developments, what you can do to help, basically how that campaign is going. I’d say another characteristic of Open Media is we don’t just run a petition a week and then shut it down and then move on to the next one. When we take on campaigns, we do it for the — we’re in it for the long haul, so often that petition is just the start and we really keep in touch with that. We’ve been working on some of our campaigns for as long as I have been here for years and years because that’s just what you got to do to — you got to maintain that sustained approach if you’re going to have success at the end of the day. So yes, openmedia.org is the best place for your listeners to start.

Richard: All right. And any other benefits from becoming a member, things people get, do you have different level of memberships?

David Christopher: We actually don’t — we see ourselves as a community and we have supporters but there is no formal membership, it’s not like you — we welcome donations of course as any grass root’s funded non-profit would but there is no sort of formal membership where if you pay $20, you become a formal member. Plenty of our support — it’s up to each individual supporter to decide how much they want to get involved and in what ways they want to get involved. For some people, that’s true being very active on our campaigns even if they are not in a position where they can donate money; for other people who might lead busy lives, they mightn’t have the time that they would like to get involved on the campaign side of things but they would have the financial resources to help keep those campaigns moving along. So it’s really we leave it up to each individual supporter to determine what the best way it is for them to support us.

Richard: Okay, very good. Well, this has been great. I really appreciate you coming online and talking about the work you guys do. I’m a subscriber, I see that it’s really great work and it’s made me aware of issues that I have been too busy or just ignorant of that affect me and a lot of other people. So I’m thankful for what you do.

David Christopher: Well, I really appreciate that.

Richard: And thanks for coming, this has been a great interview.

David Christopher: Thanks very much for having me. I really enjoyed the opportunity and I hope your listeners find it interesting.


Richard Jacobs

About Richard Jacobs

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