Copyright reform must have seemed an unlikely hot-button issue in the winter of 2007 — that is, until 50 protesters arrived at Industry Minister Jim Prentice's constituency office in Calgary in December.
They were there to voice their complaints about the government's plans to introduce a bill that would, among other changes, allow copyright holders to place digital locks on content, thus preventing copies from being made.
The small protest got a huge boost when, in a matter of days, 20,000 people joined a group protesting the rumoured legislation on the popular social networking website Facebook.
In part because of the opposition, the introduction of the legislation, Bill C-61, was delayed until June.
The group, which now has more than 90,000 members, was the brainchild of University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist, an outspoken critic of both the substance of the bill and what he says is the government's lack of public consultation on the issue.
After 7,000 new members joined the group within days of the government's introduction of the bill, Geist said it was the beginning of a new wave of political activism on the internet.
"What we've seen over the past 24 hours has been nothing short of remarkable," he said. "Literally tens of thousands of Canadians are speaking out with an element of shock that the government would introduce this legislation in the manner that it has."
Protest spawns imitators
Geist's group stands as one of the most successful examples of "Facebook activism" — tapping into the ready-made structure of online social networks to make joining a group as quick as a click of a button.
Its success has spawned imitators in the last year aimed squarely at the telecommunications industry.
The federal New Democratic Party, for example, seized on public discontent over changes to text messaging fees at Bell and Telus to start their own online petition. Their Facebook group protesting the changes has since attracted more than 37,000 members.
And a petition on a website called ruinediphone.com protesting Rogers Communications' data rates for Apple's iPhone attracted 56,000 people in just two weeks and, along with other protests, was able to influence Rogers to come out with new rates.
The success of these petitions in attracting and bringing together large groups of people brings up a larger question: how much weight should government, businesses and other Canadians give a protest that's as easy to join as a click of a button?
Telecommunications analyst Mark Goldberg thinks the relative ease of adding a name to a protest group or petition undermines the credibility of these groups.
"In the old days, businesses used to operate on the assumption that if they got one angry letter from a customer, it meant there were 10 more people out there who likely felt the same way," said Goldberg, who also writes a blog called Telecom Trends.
"But with an online poll, you have no idea how many people it represents. Does an online vote represent 10 people, or does it even represent half a person?"
Potential for abuse
The question came up eight years ago in an altogether different manner after then-Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day proposed tying federal referendums to petitions that could attract the support of three per cent of voting Canadians.
Comedian Rick Mercer, then a host of CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes, deftly ridiculed the proposal when he announced an online petition to change Day's name to "Doris." That petition attracted more than one million people and garnered international attention.
This Hour Has 22 Minutes' poll had little quality control to determine whether people were who they said they were, but that was ultimately the point: tying anything to a petition, particularly one done online, was asking for abuse of the system.
In theory, attaching a petition to a social network like Facebook mitigates this problem, since while it would be relatively simple to create a fake alias using a web mail account, it is more time-consuming to create and fill a fake Facebook account. While there have been numerous reports of fake Facebook accounts, the general consensus is that the social network provides a more reliable structure to judge whether an online petition represents real protest.
"If you have 50,000 Facebook members, you probably have close to 50,000 frustrated people," said Goldberg. "While I'd be cautious of reading too much into it, it does suggest for a government or a company that they have a public relations issue."
Goldberg also questions just how effective Geist's protest and the NDP text messaging protest really have been. In the case of the copyright bill, the federal government did eventually introduce the legislation and the Conservatives are expected to follow through if they win the Oct. 14 federal election. In the case of the text messaging fees, the government decided against interfering with Bell and Telus, despite the NDP protest.
"These petitions have been popularized, but I'm not sure they've been legitimized," Goldberg said. "They may have made their sponsors feel good about themselves, but I'm not sure they've led to many changes."
Geist says his petition has had an impact, however, in that government officials are now aware that there is tangible group of people opposing copyright reform.
"They are obviously aware of both the group and the advocacy that has arisen from it. I am not sure if they track the postings on the group, but surely the response that the group has helped foster has captured their attention," he wrote to CBC News in an e-mail.
Petitions lead to further activism
Interestingly, it was a flawed petition that has been most influential: the ruinediphone.com petition was undermined because it initially allowed people outside of Canada to add their names to the list, yet it remained instrumental in getting the message of dissatisfaction to Rogers.
Ryerson University communications professor Greg Elmer said an online petition alone is not particularly influential, but it can be an effective jumping-off point to further activism.
"What really impressed me about that group was how quickly it split off into local chapters and into further activism," said Elmer. "People didn't want to just press a button, they wanted to get together and strategize."
Geist himself thinks petitions are less important than the local activity and individual actions that follow.
"While a petition can be an effective method of demonstrating interest in an issue, I believe that the internet allows us to go far beyond the petition," he wrote.
Likewise the ruinediphone.com site became a focal point for frustration with the cellphone industry in general even after Rogers lowered its rates, according to Graham Fair, a 31-year-old from Vancouver who became the spokesman for the site when its founder wished to remain anonymous.
Elmer said he sensed a similar shift in approach among activists when he attended the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City in June.
"There's a real move away from the symbolic act, the 'click here' or 'post comment here' style of activism. What we're seeing now is a call for a greater commitment."
It's that commitment to further activism that gives these online petitions their real teeth, said Elmer.
"There's still a huge divide between the real world and the virtual world," he said. "But when you look at the copyright protest, it wasn't just names on a list, it was people showing up in Prentice's office. I think that really cemented that these were real people and this was a real issue."
Geist said online and offline activism play off each other and spawn a more far-reaching kind of protest. For that reason, he expects these kinds of protests to grow in popularity.
"This is the tip of the iceberg," he wrote. "I think we will see far more online activism and all organizations — both business and government — working to respond to the online activity."