Category Archives: privatization

The Olympic Games & Information Issues (for those who don’t live here)

Most people who live in British Columbia are well aware of the multitudinous controversies surrounding the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, which will take place in Greater Vancouver & Whistler next February. However, when I talk to friends and family from other places, I am reminded what a bubble I live in.  Most people are not hearing about Olympics-related issues on a daily basis, particularly not the information policy related issues. Therefore, I thought I’d just give a little sampler of some of the oft-ridiculous but all-too-serious issues related to privacy, freedom of speech, and access to information issues arising from these games, and the doings of VANOC, the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Game.

Free Expression:

Trademarking

VANOC trademarked not only part of the Canadian national anthem (don’t worry, they say they will still let us sing the anthem before hockey games without a lawsuit :eyeroll:), but also common words that one would think un-trademark-able such as “winter,” “Gold” and “Silver,” thanks to a bill (C 47) pushed through the House of Commons last year, which makes using several such phrases a violation of the law.

VANOC has gone so fas as to take legal action against the pre-existing small local businesses Olympic Pizza and Olympic First-Aid Services.  (Good thing the Olympics aren’t being held south of the border; they might sue the Olympic Peninsula for infringement!)

Curtailing artistic and expressive speech in other ways

The Vancouver city council’s recently passed charter amendment (currently awaiting provincial approval) that, among other things, states that “the city may remove illegal signs from real property with limited notice, and may charge the owner for the cost of such removal.”  Illegal here being about Olympic trademark infringement, of course.  Naturally, artists who create social commentary works are up in arms about this.

Privacy:

We’re now aware that there will be  an unknown (to the public) number of security cameras that will be going up (but possibly not coming down?) by the Olympics, and the Giuliani-style police crackdown on our most vulnerable community members has begun.

One local community centre rescinded its offer to be an Olympic venue, citing privacy concerns for the local community. (Coincidentally, this centre’s bid for facility upgrade funds in the new capital budget was denied, while the neighbouring community centre that allowed VANOC to commandeer their facility had its request fulfilled.) However, this local area remains marked on the official security map, and we can only wait and see what that means.

A new wave of transit ads recently went up around the region, encouraging regular folk to report suspicious behaviour to the authorities. Look here for an example of this “Report the suspicious, not the strange” campaign. The image linked to, in case you can’t get it, is a poster encouraging you to “Call a paranormal investigator” if you see a transparent person taking a picture of a security camera in a public place in an airport, but “Call us” (the transit police) if an actual person is carrying out that same, perfectly legal activity of photographing an object in a public place. Here is a link to a transit representative’s explanation and defense of said ad campaign, with pictures of the other, less offensive, ads.

There’s going to be a conference in the fall of 2009 on “The Surveillance Games” that should prove quite provocative and fascinating to any interested in this type of privacy issues, btw.

Access to Information/FOI

It was identified by the in a “Threat Assessment” as early as 2007 that the “Access to Information and Privacy (A-TIP) can adversely affect the security of the Games…” (PDF here, heavily redacted after being subject of a FOI request by the Vancouver Sun). And VANOC seems to be taking that threat seriously.

Although they spend the public’s money (how much? we don’t know yet…), VANOC is not subject to the BC Freedom of Information Act.  Until early 2008, VANOC did, however, forward its meeting minutes to the Monistry of Economic Development, where they would then be subject to FOI requests.  This stopped abruptly and without explanation when VANOC apparently stopped taking minutes.  Interestingly, the ministry lost track of all back minutes they had received at the same time.

Not that the heavily redacted and sparse-to-begin-with minutes were a huge venue for public awareness, and input, but they were something. The fact that they contained as little information as they did and were still deemed too much to make public is impressive. When the smoke clears, likely in about 2012, one wonders what, if anything, will be left in the hands of the province to account for the billions in public funding that went into these Games.

Just for giggles

This isn’t strictly information related, but it certainly is social justice-y, so I thought I’d throw in a link here to the “2010 Inclusive Winter Games Commitment Statement.” (pdf here) Why?  Because it includes such a gems as:

  • “Make affordable tickets available for Vancouver’s low-income inner-city residents, including at risk youth and children”
  • “Develop opportunities for existing and emerging local inner-city businesses and artisans to promote their goods and services”
  • “Provide for lawful, democratic protest that is protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms”
  • “Ensure people are not made homeless as a result of the Winter Games”

Do you think the people who write those things believe in them, and just get disillusioned afterward, or is it tongue-in-cheek from the beginning?

-Greyson

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Filed under community development, copyright, government information, IP, privacy, privatization

DTCA 2.0 & RareShare

I know, I know, everything is “such and such 2.0” now, and it’s getting really old.  I agree!  However, this really is “2.0,” as direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) of pharmaceuticals has officially moved from being all “push” media into its own special social networking universe. Check it out:

The Toronto Star called my attention to the social networking website http://www.RareShare.org last week. The uncritical article by the “Faith and Ethics Reporter” acclaimed RareShare for creating online support for the “forgotten people” who have diseases so rare that there are no local face-to-face support groups.  Call me cynical, but I wish the article went a little heavier on the ethics and a little lighter on the faith in altruistic corporate goodwill.

The RareShare site is tight-lipped about its corporate sponsors. From publicly accessible information, we know that the 2 founders of the site are U.S. business guys with specialisations in high-growth tech and biotech and communications. We know one of the corporate partners behind the RareShare site is Nutra Pharma, currently testing a drug for the rare disease adrenomyeloneuropathy.  And we know that, in addition to “moderated” (by whom?) discussions in communities organized by disease, the site plans to have doctors (presumably those who are friendly with the corporate sponsors of the site?) holding online Q&A sessions with community members.

The Privacy Policy is a bit odd, in that it appears to have been written for another website. ?? They collect your email address and track your travels in order to improve their page, customize their content to you, etc. They’ll remove your name and phone # when they share your info with other companies. They use cookies, and record session info, “such as items that consumers add to their shopping cart”?  Shopping cart?  Huh?  If you give your telephone #, they’ll only use it to contact you regarding orders you have placed online? What kind of a website is this anyway?

It is perhaps worth noting that the RareShare defintion of “rare” is considerably broader than some other lists of rare diseases, including such conditions as gestational diabetes, which occurs in about 4% of pregnancies, according to the American Diabetes Association. According to the Canadian Organization for Rare Disorders, “A rare or “orphan” disease affects fewer than 1 in 2,000 people.”  While expectant mothers with gestational diabetes may legitimately feel the need for more support, they are hardly living with a rare disease.  The inclusion of such common ailmentsparticularly ones such as diabetes that are hotbeds of new pharmaceutical interest, and sometimes lead to ongoing monitoring and medication for the rest of one’s life – do raise a question of drug company profit motive.

It’s all not necessarily fishy, but it is a perfect setup for embedded DTCA with a social environment created to reach vulnerable and isolated populations. Sort of makes me want to lurk around and see what goes on once things get kicking in their forums…

…So I admit it: I did just that. Here’s my report. The site is so new that there’s not much there yet, so it’s a bit hard to assess where it’s going.  There were about 160 members as of when I peeked in, most of whom appear to be patients or family members of patients. These individuals post seeking help, advice, and connection with others.  Many of them are disclosing their personal stories: their ages, location, when they were diagnoses, what drugs they’ve already tried, etc. They join ”communities” of diseases based on their actual or suspected diagnoses.

Then, there are 2 members who appear to be doing far more posting then everyone else: one of the 2 site founders, and the CEO of a drug company.  The site founder has joined several communities and posted welcome messages in the forums.  The CEO has similarly joined many communities and in some he has posted messages such as:

“We’ve found that an already existing class of drugs is effective about half the time in XYZ syndrome. Please contact me for details of our Next Generation Disease Management service.”

“We think an already existing class of drugs may help in XYZ disease. Please contact me for details of our Phase IV trial.”

”We think already existing drugs may supplement standard chemotherapy and radiation treatment for XYZ cancer. Please contact me for details of our Phase IV trial.”

In addition to clinical trial recruitment, there is already some advertising for lab tests, for example Designer Diagnostics test kits of Nontuberculosis Mycobacteria (NTM).  Each disease community “home” has a link to more information about the disease.  Many of these pages are still pretty empty, but in the case of a few, this link leads to a full page that does not document the source of most of its information.  On the NTM disease information page, for example, under “diagnostic tests” there is only one brand of test mentioned.  If you follow the link to more information about the test, you can read about why this test is allegedly better than other tests, and you can follow another link right to the website of the manufacturer of the test.

Annnnnd, if you follow enough links on the Designer Diagnostics website, you can eventually get to the fact that they have a parent company.  This parent company, unsurprisingly, is the very same Nutra Pharma that you may recall is one of the corporate partners behind RareShare.

What a coincidence.

There is a clear and present need for more support and networking among patients and doctors dealing with rare diseases. If the public sector is not going to provide this type of health care, information and support, it is natural that the private sector will naturally seize the opportunity. We should not for a moment, however, forget that firms, unlike public health infrastructures, work from a place of their own bottom line and fiscal responsibility to their shareholders. For them to actually act out of total altruism and concern for the patients would be a conflict of interest.

– Greyson

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Brand Sponsorship of YA Novels?

As a major YA novel fan, this made me want to cry.

A NYT article this week discusses what happened with the innovative and bestselling “Cathy’s Book” and what is in the plans for a new tween series, “Mackenzie Blue.”

After Running Press/Perseus Books, publishers of Cathy’s Book, revealed that they had agreed to have the characters wear particular brands/lines of makeup in the novel, they experienced a big backlash from public advocacy groups and authors alike. The Press has issued a revised paperback edition with the specific product references removed.

The Cathy’s Book fiasco would feel like a victory if there weren’t other attempts – such as Mackenzie Blue – waiting in the wings. Harper Collins has hired not an author, but a marketing executive to write these books. A marketing exec who specializes, of course, in marketing to teens and pre-teens. *shudder* The NYT article quotes this woman explaining how the partnerships will work:

Ms. Wells said she would not change a brand that she felt was at the core of a particular character’s identity merely to cement a marketing partnership. “Mackenzie loves Converse,” she said, referring to the series’s heroine and the popular sneaker brand she favors. “Does Converse want to work with us? I have no clue. But that doesn’t negate the fact that Mackenzie loves Converse.”

However, when asked what she would do if another sneaker company like Nike (one of her clients) wanted to sponsor the books, she said, “Maybe another character could become a Nike girl.”

Oh, well, that’s a relief! For a moment there I was worried that corporate sponsorships might influence content! (<–sarcasm) (…also, does it skeev you out too to hear the phrase “a brand…at the core of a particular character’s identity”? I’m all for realism in teen books, and I understand that some young – or old – people identify strongly with a particular brand, but seriously now, a brand should not be at the core of every character. That is not realism; that is advertising.)

As a a librarian, parent and book reviewer, I have many concerns about product placement in books for youth. Will authors eventually be expected to write in specified products to their stories, in order to get a publishing contract with a major press? How will we know about these sponsorship deals? Presumably all publishers won’t be (haven’t been?) as forthcoming about their “sponsorship” agreements as Running Press.

    And what can we do to send a strong message back to publishers that we do NOT approve of such meddling in our YA literature?

    When I teach college courses in Women’s/Gender Studies, I always sneak in media literacy stuff. Learning how to read and question health reporting, the sad state of our media “democracy” these days, what is “net neutrality,” etc. Invariably, many students are shocked and appalled after reading an article about product placement in TV shows. What does this say to me? Educated, bright, young Canadians – even those who choose to take elective courses that focus on critical thinking – have no idea about all the marketing that surrounds us.

    Like many librarians I am a bit of a bibliophile.  Books are sacred things, and somehow the idea of novels becoming as corrupt and marketing to our youth as much as television upsets me. Can we do something about this? Exclude books from the running for awards if they have paid product placement or some such, perhaps?

    And what of book buying for libraries? When the “select for literary quality” philosophy bumps up against the “give them what they want” ideology for collection development, does product placement in books ever cause them to be removed from a list? Should school libraries, who do have some responsibility to act “in loco parentis” eschew sponsored books? Is this different from commercial popular books like those modeled on TV shows, toys, etc.? (It feels different, somehow, because it’s more sneaky.)

    Other than the makeup fiasco, Cathy’s Book sounds like an interesting concept…but should I not read it on a moral stance? Fortunately, I checked my local library catalogue and it appears that they have bought the revised, paperback edition. But what if the publisher was brash enough to refuse to offer a non-commercial edition?

    Off to tear my hair out now…right after I put a hold request on Cathy’s Book.

    -Greyson

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    Filed under media democracy, privatization, publishing, school libraries

    DTCA, part I – The CanWest Legal Challenge

    This is the first of what I’m sure will end up being several posts on Direct-to-Consumer Advertising of prescription drugs. It’s an issue I never thought too much about as it silently crept into our magazines and televisions in the US, but once living in Canada and working in health policy, my eyes were opened to what a weird and complex issue this truly is. As a librarian, I was trained in the protection of freedom of expression, and as an agent of public health I have the responsibility to prioritize the health and welfare of the population. It is fascinating for me to explore an issue where suddenly all the great health policy thinkers I respect are arguing *for* government regulation of expression and it’s the giant multinational multi-$$$ conglomerate-corporations who are crying out that their expressive freedom is being infringed upon.

    Background on DTCA:

    Direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) of prescription drugs is only considered to be legal in two countries: the US and NZ (and NZ came very close to banning it last year). Neither country voted in a law to legalize DTCA or had any public consultation or parliamentary debate leading to the legalization. In the US, notably, the FDA relaxed its guidance on drug advertising in 1997, following drug companies’ pushing the boundaries farther and farther with little to no enforcement of the then-existing rules. The pharmaceutical industry has aggressively lobbied to be permitted to advertise prescription drugs to consumers in other regions, as TV drug advertising has proven to have a stunning return-on-investment for them. In 2002, the EU parliament actually voted on legalizing DTCA – 498 against to 42 for legalization.

    Canada currently allows only very restricted forms of DTCA– although the rules are rarely enforced and often rather blatantly flouted (e.g. an illegal drug ad on the wall in a hospital near my house last year!). As I have alluded to previously, illegal print ads in public places abound this year as well. Additionally, Canadians are to some extent “contaminated” (to speak epidemiologically) by drug ads which US television stations (illegally) broadcast across the border. The existing systematic review of Benefits and Harms of Direct to Consumer Advertising finds that DTCA works – which is to say it affects prescriptions, sells the product it advertises – but that there is no evidence of any health benefit to the practice.

    In a free-market health care “system” such as the US, this may seem a neutral, or even positive, finding when considered as innovative capitalistic market success. However, in a country such as Canada, which has the premise of universal healthcare as a human right as an element of its national identity, needless costs on health care are seen as coming out of the taxpayer’s pocket and thus diverting resources from other potential government/health services. (This is not to imply that the US should not consider cost of pharmaceuticals, particularly in light of the new Medicare Plan D for seniors, but just to clarify why the practice of DTCA may be framed differently in the different political economies.)

    The Legal Challenge:

    CanWest MediaWorks Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of CanWest Global Communications Corp.,an international media company and the largest media owner in Canada), has applied to the Ontario Superior Court to strike down the current Canadian laws restricting DTCA. The basis for this application is the claim that the regulations violate Section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

    For non-Canadians, the Charter is the bill of rights in our constitution. It was only formally enacted in 1982, so the legacy of case law is rather young, and lots of things are still being defined and duked out in court. (As someone who grew up in the US and recalls celebrating the bicentennial of that constitution in grade 5, this is fascinating to me!)

    One of the interesting things about the Charter is the very first section, which is called the “Limiting Clause” and more or less says that all of the rights about to be laid out in all the sections that follow can be limited if the limitations can be justified in a “free and democratic society.” The next section after this limiting clause that makes all other clauses non-absolute is the one that includes “Fundamental Freedoms” such as freedom of expression (the aforementioned 2b), thought, press, peaceful assembly, etc. The interplay between these first two sections leads to all sorts of fascinating legal wrangling – an example of which that is near & (not so) dear to many librarians is the Butler obscenity case, which set precedent for limiting pornographic free expression.

    Finally, it should be noted that way down in Section 26, the Charter states that there may be other rights and freedoms, and that the rights & freedoms spelled out in the Charter should not infringe on those other rights. Some legal scholars have argued that health care falls under these other rights, while others think health is actually covered under another section (7) that guarantees “life, liberty and security of person.” Suffice to say here that there are sections under which health care could be argued to fall, and thus could possibly justify limiting freedom of expression. It’s all pretty convoluted, eh? Because free expression is protected under the Charter, in Section 2, it takes a very strong concern to enact Section 1’s Limiting Clause and limit any forms of expression. Ads are a form of expression (at least on the part of the content creator), so the question here becomes:

    Are the harms of DTCA strong enough to justify (in a free and democratic society) limiting free expression?

    In order to truly answer this question, there are a few issues to tackle:

    1. What are the harms of DTCA?
    2. How dangerous to freedom and democracy does it seem to limit the “expression” of DTCA?
    3. Are there other rights & freedoms not specified in the charter (such as a right to health/health care) that could justify limiting Sec 2 in the case of DTCA?

    Next installment: unpacking the Freedom of Expression argument here

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    Heads up: More on privatization of Canadian health information/care

    Mark Rabnett has a lovely post up on his blog, Shelved in the W’s, on Tennyson, the CHN shutdown and two-tiered health systems.

    Just as we have tiers to our health care system here in Canada – “medically necessary” care for all, but increasingly also pay-for-priority care for those who can afford it – so have we tiers to our health information system.

    -Greyson

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