Friday, September 26, 2008

return of the pledge -- explaining democracy

In previous posts and comments, I have expressed my discomfort with the idea of asking politicians to "pledge"... well, anything beyond allegiance to the Queen. This came out of Michael Geist's original copyright pledge which had to do, I believe, with keeping any politician accepting campaign contributions by way of copyright-dependent industries from having anything to do with legislating copyright.

Anyway, the whole thing reminded me of certain pledges that show up in US politics from time to time -- "I pledge to never raise taxes. Please vote for me." That kind of thing. How's that working out for the US, by the way?

Michael Geist is at it again. He's recently published his Copyright Pledge - 2008 Election Edition, in which he asks voters to try and get candidates to "sign on to" a pledge that, among other things, appears to privilege user rights in the copyright debate.

To me these types of pre-election, pre-Parliamentary binding promises feel anti-democratic, and thanks to a keen-eyed commenter on Geist's blog, I now understand why they feel this way to me. Because they are anti-democratic. So anti-democratic, in fact, that they are expressly forbidden under Canadian law. Section 550 of the Elections Act reads:

550. No candidate shall sign a written document presented by way of demand or claim made on him or her by any person or association of persons, between the issue of the writ and polling day, if the document requires the candidate to follow a course of action that will prevent him or her from exercising freedom of action in Parliament, if elected, or to resign as a member if called on to do so by any person or association of persons.

UPDATE: Michael Geist has posted a disclaimer on his blog explaining the pledge's compliance with the Elections Act. You can find the revised posting at the link above, or see Dr. Geist's response to me in the comments section for this posting.

FURTHER UPDATE: Boing Boing linked to Geist's pledge with the headline Canadians: ask your candidates to take the copyright pledge! They seem to have interpreted it as a pledge for individuals, which we now know it is not. I am attempting to engage with the Boing Boing audience in their comments section, but am having a bit of trouble getting my points and links past a moderator. Meanwhile, the author of that Boing Boing post, Cory Doctorow, enjoys unmoderated access to my comments section.


Anonymous said...


Three responses:

1. The blog posting did not call on candidates to sign anything (it referenced parties). There is nothing illegal about the commitment raised in the posting. For greater certainty, it now says "agree to" rather than "sign on to".

2. The pledge does not privilege users rights. It calls for respecting both creators and consumers. It further says not to weaken users rights, which is not the same thing as privileging.

3. Given your strong opposition to this approach, I look forward to a similar posting taking ACTRA to task for doing precisely the same thing on the culture funding cuts.

Michael Geist

John said...


Thanks for fixing your blog posting, editing out the offending "sign on to," posting a corrective disclaimer, and then explaining to me how it was all correct to begin with anyway.

Indeed, if ACTRA were to be asking either parties or candidates to sign any kind of pre-election pledge, I would have the same objections. I don't see them doing that anywhere in the link you've provided. I think you may be trying to suggest that I am less concerned about process when it supports a cause I believe in, and I guess that's some kind of rebuttal. What kind, I'll let others judge.

I think everyone should get out to all-candidate meetings and ask hard questions to politicians -- questions reflecting how you want them to govern if you favour them with your vote. But I also want them to be free to govern according to their own counsel, and not by pre-election agreement.

There is an important difference between a politician saying I am committed to public arts funding and one saying I will never vote against a public arts funding measure. I believe to my core in the importance of public arts funding, but I would never ask a politician to remove their free conscience for my cause.

Point two of your pledge is problematic for me not just because it does indeed favour the user (No matter what act is introduced, it will be interpreted as weakening someone's rights under copyright. Why have you ask for protection for the user only?), but because it is just such a freedom-removing request.

I hope that clears things up.

Corey G said...

I must admit pledges erks me a bit too.