Monthly Archives: April 2008

Net Neutrality in a Nutshell

Here’s the backgrounder I pulled together for the BCLA Resolution on Network (Net) Neutrality. A great debt is owed to Danielle Dennie (of LibrarianActivist fame) for her assistance in writing both the resolution and this backgrounder. Yes, this has been cross-posted in a couple of other places. -Greyson

Net Neutrality in a Nutshell:
Backgrounder for the BCLA AGM, April 19, 2008

What is “Net Neutrality”?
Network (“Net”) Neutrality is “the principle that all information that is sent over the Internet should be treated equally.” This means that:

  • Internet Service Providers (ISPs, like Telus, Shaw, Rogers or Bell) shouldn’t interfere in web content getting to you
  • All sites and formats should be treated the same by ISPs
  • Users are free to go where they want on the Internet, and access whatever information they wish

Who is opposed to Net Neutrality, and why?
The primary opponents of regulation to require net neutrality are telecommunications and cable companies. They argue that they need the ability to block or filter their networks in order to prevent illegal file sharing, viruses and spam, and congestion due to bandwidth-intensive traffic (such as video streaming). Net neutrality regulation would also prevent ISPs from levying surcharges on users or content providers who want premium (fast or equal) access to their networks.

Who supports Net Neutrality, and why?
The National Union of Public and General Employees (which represents more than 340,000 workers across the country), the Council of Canadians, the Campaign for Democratic Media, and the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, and the Independent Film and Television Alliance, to name a few. The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage also raised concerns about non-neutrality’s impact on Canadian heritage, in their recent report.

Primary arguments for net neutrality are that both the Internet and Canadian Telecommunications Policy rely on the principle of “common carriage” – that public networks shouldn’t discriminate among content. Supporters of net neutrality don’t want to see the Internet run by a bidding war, with fast access sold to the highest bidder. As Michael Geist warns, “imagine a world in which Chapters cannot compete in the online book space because its content is on the slow lane while Amazon is on the fast lane.” That is a world without net neutrality.

What are some examples of non-neutrality?
Non-neutrality is often likened to a highway with a toll fast lane for content providers who pay a premium, and a regular slow lane for the rest of us. Here are just a few exampled of violations of net neutrality in Canada:

Do any existing laws or regulations pertain to Net Neutrality?
The principle of Common Carriage is enshrined in Canada’s Telecommunications Act (1993), Sec. 27(2): “No Canadian carrier shall, in relation to the provision of a telecommunications service or the charging of a rate for it, unjustly discriminate or give an undue or unreasonable preference toward any person, including itself, or subject any person to an undue or unreasonable disadvantage.”

But in 1999 the CRTC decided that regulating the Internet was beyond its scope. The CRTC is currently reviewing its jurisdiction over new media and their report should be released in May. Several organizations and individuals are filing submissions to the CRTC this spring, and there is a call for public hearings on the issue.

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Childbirth may not be suitable for minors

A family friend had a baby this morning! Yay! My five year old was quite put out that he was not able to watch the baby being born. As a consolation prize, I promised to YouTube some birth videos for him in lieu of tonight’s bedtime stories. I had a nice set of links emailed to me for my women’s health class by a local birth attendant, so I started with those. I vaguely knew that some of them required you to click through and say you were not a minor in order to watch – a fact about which my students rightly grumbled. Tonight after the kid’s bedtime, I did a little more investigation into the “potentially inappropriate” YouTube content situation.

What was it about the childbirth videos that made them potentially inappropriate?

To divine the answer, I tried searching for non-human birth videos. Cat, dog, monkey, elephant, sheep, panda, dolphin, seal, killer whale, angel shark, royal white tiger, and kangaroo, all came up just fine and barrier-free.

But when you search just childbirth or “human childbirth,” the videos tend to be marked with:

This video or group may contain content that is inappropriate for some users, as flagged by YouTube’s user community.

To view this video or group, please verify you are 18 or older by logging in or signing up.

Then – and this is the best part, in my opinion – once you are past the warning page and watching the video, there is a header that says

This video may not be suitable for minors.

Irony, much?

Is there any other event that human beings universally experience (as minors, nonetheless) besides being born?

You can do it, you just can’t see it/learn about it? This is a problem. Especially considering that a lot of people give birth before the age of 18.

What makes human birth potentially inappropriate? Is is the semi- (or sometimes full) nudity? The presence (sometimes clearly seen, sometimes just clearly implied by the fact that a baby came from that general area) of a human vulva & vagina?

Going with the vagina theory, I tried searching “Caeserean.” Caeserean birth videos carry no warning. It’s totally fine to show major surgery, blood & guts, seemingly-headless bodies with babies being extracted through large incisions by bloody gloved hands (often also from seemingly-headless medical staff). But not *gasp* a vagina through which a baby us naturally passing the way babies have passed since the beginning of humanity!

Like most of my stories, this one gets weirder still. You know how YouTube lists “related” videos to the one you’re watching, along the sidebar? I linked from Ceasearean birth to “toddlers nursing,” which I was pleasantly surprised to find free of the above 18-or-over warning.

Than, I linked from toddlers nursing to “breastfeeding video,” which – for some reason – has the videos titled “shaved asian has multiple orgasms” and “I’M 15 AND I’VE SLEPT WITH MEN OVER 300 TIMES!” listed as related. Hrm…social tagging is great and all, but someone needs a little authority control or something there.

Neither of the above videos (“shaved asian…” or “I’m 15…”) carried the 18-or-over warning. Neither shows any full nudity or uncovered vaginas, just plenty of sexual talk and innuendo; perhaps that is why. Would I rather have my kindergartener watching a video of someone’s homebirth, or a talk show excerpt in which a 15-year old girl is interrogated about her sexual activities? Are my values that out of touch? If I ever needed a clear example of the old “what is offensive to you is a miracle to me (and possibly vice versa)” principle, there it is on YouTube.

On principle I don’t like making anyone register with a site to be allowed to watch certain videos. It’s like hiding the sex books behind the desk, even if you allow them to circulate to those who come ask for them, making then technically “available.” I understand that websites may have liability concerns, though, and why they might attempt to have some sort of nominal barrier to underage viewing of certain types of material.

I’m aware that YouTube has this process wherein viewers can tag a video as potentially inappropriate for minors, and then eventually someone on staff is supposed to review those videos and remove them if they truly are offensive. I was vaguely aware of this from previous allegations of censorship of certain political views. Apparently they also took down a bunch of birth and breastfeeding videos last fall, but are perhaps no longer doing so now? I guess just keeping the kids out of birth is now a satisfactory solution. Hrm.

It just makes me feel sad to see where these lines get drawn. Sad, but also fortunate, to be in a library community that generally supports its members in resisting such line-drawing. Um, so remind me not to go work for YouTube/Google, okay? I like my intellectual freedom. And my kid’s.

-Greyson

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IP and the Harry Potter Lexicon court case

I can’t get away from the rather melodramatic news bits about JK Rowling appearing in Federal District Court in New York this week, Michigan librarian Steven Jan Vander Ark whose fan lit is the focus of her lawsuit, and who is crying and trying not to cry about Harry Potter in court today. But I haven’t yet stumbled upon library folk talking about what this case could mean as far as precedent for copyright & other types of intellectual property.

The Cliff’s Notes (or Cole’s Notes, here in Canada) version of the suit is that Warner Bros and JK Rowling have filed suit (On Halloween! How perfect!) against independent publisher RDR Books to prevent them from publishing Steven Jan Vander Ark’s manuscript “The Harry Potter Lexicon.” The book is/was to be an adaptation of the fan site of the same name, which Vander Ark maintained.

So, this is weird to begin with, right? How can an author sue to prevent companion works? This whole argument seems quote bogus to me, and I am a bit surprised it’s getting a day in court, frankly. I was only an English major for a brief stint many years ago, but even I became well acquainted with companion works such as volumes of literary criticism, guidebooks to genres and authors and, well, the aforementioned Cliff’s Notes. I’m pretty sure there are several Tolkien Encyclopedias out there (and if I were Rowling I would be pleased to be in such good company).

But it gets weirder yet, when we read that Rowling apparently praised and supported Vander Ark’s Harry Potter Lexicon as a website, generating only piddly ad revenue for the proprietor.

RDR Publishers states that

Among the site’s supporters is J.K. Rowling, who bestowed the HPL with a Fan Site Award in 2004 and wrote on her website: “This is such a great site that I have been known to sneak into an Internet cafe while out writing and check a fact rather than go into a bookshop and buy a copy of Harry Potter (which is embarrassing).”

Now that the HP Lexicon is to be a published book, however, she has withdrawn her blessing and replaced it with ire. Rowling is allegedly citing plans (or maybe just wishes, depending on whose reporting you’re following) of her own to write a Harry Potter Encyclopedia of some sort, which would somehow be ruined by Vander Ark’s fan Lexicon. But of course it’s “not about the money.” Nu?

Joe Nocera wrote a nice article in the NYT about the suit, calling Rowling a “copyright hog” and reminding us what “fair use” means. In it, he explains:

[Rowling] is essentially claiming that the decision to publish — or even to allow — a Harry Potter encyclopedia is hers alone, since after all, the characters in her books came out of her head. They are her intellectual property. And in her view, no one else can use them without her permission.

Riiight…and no one should ever write fan fic (which probably generates big $$$ for the original creator by virtue of building a cult following) or, say, a Gone With the Wind retelling or an Anne of Green Gables adaptation or anything like that.

It is sad that apparently no one has explained to such a successful writer about fair use. It’s also kind of, well, weird that such a successful author would be grabbing at sole right to this companion work as if she were never going to have another good or original idea in her life, rather than accepting it as the tribute it was meant to be.

Seeing as, for whatever reason, Rowling and her lawyers do have a reputation for going after unauthorized spin-offs around the world that goes back several years now, I, for one, am glad Lawrence Lessig & company from Stanford’s Fair Use Project are on RDR’s side. And I wish them the best. The slippery slope that an anti-spin-off ruling could create is not one in which I want to live, or read.

-Greyson

By the way — Am I breaking some sort of librarian code for discussing this? Are we all supposed to love HP because it gets kids to read, or something? Do we all think this suit is such hogwarts – er, I mean hogwash of course (don’t sue me!) – that it’s not worth devoting the time to type out an opinion? Have I been reading the wrong blogs? Or are we all just away at library conferences this month? Whatever it is, I missed the memo.

**Follow-up post here.

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DTCA, part II – Unpacking the Expressive Freedom argument

Part II of a likely-ongoing series of posts regarding Direct-to-Consumer Advertising of prescription drugs (DTCA), here is some discussion from a librarian’s standpoint regarding CanWest’s claim that Canada’s ban on DTCA infringes on the media company’s Charter-granted “Freedom of Expression.”

Freedom of corporate expression vs. human rights of people?


There is certainly a legitimate debate regarding whether the ability to sell ads is truly “free expression.” This case, after all, is not even looking at the question of pharmaceutical companies’ right to communicate their advertising content, but at CanWest’s right to make money off of this advertising content.

Canadian Supreme Court precedent is to interpret expression broadly, to include pretty much any attempt to convey meaning. The library community has generally supported this broad interpretation, even when applied to paid advertisements, as in the multiple challenges to the queer newspaper Xtra! West based on allegedly explicit advertising content (See BCLA’s “Censorship in British Columbia” timeline for details of some of these challenges)

I’m not 100% sold, personally, on the argument that paid ads in Media X are Media X’s own expression. However, if you do accept that CanWest has a charter-given right to freely express itself by way of selling ad space to ads that contain content that may be detrimental to Canadians’ health, then the second question we must ask is, of course, whether CanWest’s right to sell ads is in conflict with Canadians’ human rights (e.g., health). If so, does this right to free expression outweigh the negative impact on health as a human right.

Is there precedent?

There certainly is! And it swings in both directions. (Whee!)

The Supreme Course has upheld at least three similar restrictions on free expression:

Frankly, as a civil libertarian and advocate of intellectual freedom, I think the latter two of those three are bad decisions. But, saving that for another post on another day, there clearly is precedent for limiting free expression, even expression by corporate interests.

Tobacco and alcohol are the clearest analogues to prescription drugs, seeing as they are also regulated substances that have been allowed limited advertising. Unfortunately the stories are messy and neither is a perfect analogue. Prescription drugs, when used correctly, can actually improve health and save lives, which cannot be argued at all by tobacco which will eventually kill almost anyone (thus faces the strictest restrictions of the three classes of substances) and hardly by alcohol (which is allowed to advertise to adults in many media).

The Tobacco Example

The tobacco advertising history is especially complex, but – because of that complexity – may be instructive as we watch the DTCA case play out.

In 1995, the Supreme Court narrowly struck down the Tobacco Products Control Act that prohibited tobacco advertising. RJR-MacDonald argued in 1995 that the act infringed on their freedom of expression on under Sec 2(b) of the Charter, similar to what CanWest is arguing about the DTCA restrictions. The majority opinion of the court was that there were not grounds to invoke the limiting clause (Sec 1 of the Charter) in the case of tobacco advertising. The minority opinion was, of course, that there was cause to limit tobacco advertising, because the product is harmful and often fatal, and advertising targeted young people.

Of course, in 1997 a new tobacco ad regulation law was passed, the Tobacco Act, which limits, rather than completely prohibiting tobacco ads. (There has been speculation that the government’s inflexibility to considering anything but complete prohibition on advertising angered the court; this more moderate approach of regulation has seemed to succeed.)

How does that compare with the case of DTCA?

Prescription drugs can be harmful or fatal, but should not be when used properly. The advertising increasingly does target young people – and women, another “vulnerable” population according to previous court decisions such as Butler. But there are, in theory at least, professionals to mediate people’s access to the products.

The current prohibition on DTCA is not absolute, and in fact more closely resembles the latter Tobacco Act restrictions on promotion than the earlier absolute prohibition (although again it must be noted that enforcement of the restrictions is pretty toothless).

So it would seem to me (in my unequivocally not-a-lawyer mind) that the question is one of how tightly we need to regulate/limit DTCA. Which hinges on the question of how harmful it can be (i.e., how much “limiting” can we reasonably invoke upon this type of expression).

All of which more or less brings us to Vioxx…

Ah, yes, Vioxx (rofecoxib), perhaps the ENRON of pharmaceutical regulation?

According to the New York Times’ handy Vioxx timeline, the FDA approved Vioxx on May 20, 1999. In June 2000 the VIGOR study final data was submitted to the FDA. This was the study that showed a 4x higher rate of heart attacks among patients using Vioxx than those using naproxin (a NSAID, standard osteoarthritis pain treatment). On Sept. 28, 2004, more than 4 years later, the FDA met with Merck about the cardiovascular adverse effects and Merck agreed to “voluntarily” withdraw Vioxx.

The FDA estimates that between 1999 and 2003, Vioxx may have contributed to almost 28,000 heart attacks and sudden cardiac deaths. Some other estimates range much higher.

During that same time period, 1999-2004, Merck spent $550 million on DTCA for Vioxx to the US public. Vioxx was pulling in about $2.5 billion (yes, billion with a B) annually for Merck during this time.

It seems pretty clear that Vioxx was approved on limited safety data, yes, but that even after data showing harm was submitted it took years (and another still more damning study, APPROVe, in 2004) before action was taken to withdraw this drug from the market.

Years during which people sickened and died needlessly.

Years during which the drug which was sickening and killing them was being heavily promoted both to doctors and the public, to the tune of record ad spending *and* record profits.

How much less uptake might there have been of Vioxx without all the Direct-to-Consumer Advertising? It’s hard to say definitively.

Does this example of Vioxx, a product with huge DTCA and huge sales, demonstrate enough risk or harm inherent in DTCA to justify limiting this type of expression?

To be continued…

-Greyson

See here for DTCA part I – the CanWest legal challenge

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Victoria Library Lockout resolved

To make this a weekend foll of follow-up, let me note that the six week Victoria Library Lockout in BC has been resolved, and the libraries are well on their way to being open to the public once more.

And while I’m not sure the “pay equity issue” is once and for all resolved and put to rest, the way the Globe and Mail seems to be, it does sound like this resolution was a great victory for the library staff, and a big step toward pay equity.

The nuts & bolts are a 4 year contract (meaning, I believe, that this contract will end the same time as several other CUPE library locals in BC…namely the others that were on strike this past autumn), some new FT positions, wages increasing over the contract, and a larger pay increase for those terribly underpaid pages at the bottom of the payscale. For those of us who believe the devil is usually in the details, here’s the Memorandum of Settlement so you can scour the details.

As CUPE spokesman Ed Seedhouse told Library Journal this agreement was a compromise. Isn’t it always. But, to paraphrase Seedhouse again, this agreement really is a milestone.

Congratulations CUPE 410!

And thanks to the local Greater Victoria community for all your support of your libraries. I especially enjoyed and appreciated the video footage of the storytime sit-in at the Labour Relations Board! (link via Union Librarian)

And BC public library staff, I will be among the many interested watchers and supporters in 2012 when all these current, hard-won contracts are up. Hopefully in the post-Olympics era, we will have an easier time with our priorities, such as a living wage and gender equity.

-Greyson

Previous posts on the lockout here and here.

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POPLINE kerfuffle follow-up

The good news of the day is that Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH, Dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has released a “Statement Regarding POPLINE Database.”

In the statement he says he was just informed this morning about the blocking of searches for abortion in POPLINE, and that he “could not disagree more strongly with this decision.”

His explanation for what happened is a bit puzzling:

USAID, which funds POPLINE, found two items in the database related to abortion that did not fit POPLINE criteria. The agency then made an inquiry to POPLINE administrators. Following this inquiry, the POPLINE administrators at the Center for Communication Programs made the decision to restrict abortion as a search term.

Don’t you wonder what those items were?  (Also, how exactly the “inquiry” was made?)

Interesting.  Comments on Rachel Walden’s blog are tracking the return of records.

Wired has an article discussing the stopword decision and a bit on the Mexico City Policy as background here.  In that article, ALA president Loriene Roy states her concerns over the policy:

“Any federal policy or rule that requires or encourages information providers to block access  to scientific information because of partisan or religious bias is censorship,” she said. “Such policies promote idealogy over science and only serve to deny researchers, students and individuals on all sides of the issue access to accurate scientific information.”

I love it when my reproductive health, social justice, and librarianship worlds come together.  Librarian/Information kindred should absolutely be up in arms about the Mexico City Policy.  But I never saw any library affinity groups at any of those “pro-choice” Marches on Washington (maybe they were there, but in my pre-librarian life they were not apparent to me).  This should change.   I love that the ALA president is connecting reproductive rights and intellectual freedom.  Can we keep doing this, always, please?

Back on POPLINE in particular, hooray for everyone who wrote, called, and spread the word about this mess.  As my partner said when I told her about Dean Klag’s statement today, “Wow.  Librarians do rock.”

Now, why did this making a fuss work pretty well with POPLINE and not so well with the CHN?

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Filed under censorship, government, Health, Intellectual freedom, Other blogs, The Profession

POPLINE and government barriers to information on “controversial” topics

I saw it first at Rachel’s blog, but you may have seen it any number of places by now:

Making the rounds of librarian emails, listservs and blogs in the past day or so is the news that POPLINE, “the world’s largest database on reproductive health, containing citations with abstracts to scientific articles, reports, books, and unpublished reports in the field of population, family planning, and related health issues,” has made abortion (and all abortion related terms) a stopword.

Yes, a stopword, like: a, an & the.

Because “abortion” is semantically empty, just like “the,” right?

According to the “About” page, “POPLINE is maintained by the INFO Project at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health/Center for Communication Programs and is funded by the United States Agency for International Development. (USAID).”

Presumably, if a democrat is elected president in the US in November, the Mexico City Policy (scroll down to the last in the list) will once more flip back “off” and abortion will no longer be a dirty word for USAID-funded folk anymore.

Can we wait for that, though?

In the immediate, let’s join in the chorus leaning on POPLINE to deal with this asap (Comment form here: http://db.jhuccp.org/ics-wpd/popweb/contact.html).

In the longer term, can we talk about what seems to be happening right now in terms of government clamping down on access to controversial health issue information? Bush II reinstated the Mexico City Policy in January 2001. Why is POPLINE being altered in April 2008?

I mean, maybe I’m putting on the tinfoil hat here, but, in light of my previous post about searching for public health sources on the myth of an abortion/breast cancer link, it kind of spooks me that right when the CHN is shut down, POPLINE also effectively blocks access to abortion information. (Yes, we library-heads can bypass the search box by using the subject hyperlinks in the records, but you can’t get a very sophisticated search going without limiting it beyond “abortion” – and to do that you need to use the text boxes.  Or to open up IE and browse to the various keywords you want to combine, copying/pasting them in and combining with boolean operators.  Still somewhat limiting, although I was actually able to combine abortion and breast cancer this way and get only 211 records.)

Oh, and don’t forget that, nearly simultaneously, Bill C-484 – the so-called “Unborn Victims of Violence Act” – surprised many of us by actually passing a second reading in the Canadian House of Commons (Requisite petition link: http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/oppose-bill-c-484.html).

Coincidence? I’m not saying this is all a big woo-woo coordinated conspiracy. But what I am saying is we should be careful not to view the POPLINE kerfuffle as an isolated incident, but as a high-profile indicator of our current climate, in which governments are converting relatively balanced comprehensive health information sources into platforms from which to promote and advance partisan agendas, a la the new Healthy Canadians website.

-Greyson

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