Jim Prentice doesn’t understand his own copyright bill

I’ve been following the brouhaha over the Conservative government’s new copyright bill, C-61, and specifically how the government has been responding to geeks who are finding holes in it and driving public opinion against the bill.

The more I follow it, the more I come to a rather stunning conclusion: Industry Minister Jim Prentice doesn’t understand his own copyright bill.

The big controversy, as the Globe’s Ivor Tossell explains, is over a provision about so-called digital locks (those software hacks they call Digital Rights Management, or DRM, that try to control how you access digital media). It says that users cannot bypass these locks, no matter how flimsy they are, even if what they’re trying to do with it is entirely legal.

The consequence of this is that companies just put digital locks on everything, and through a loophole in the law can claim rights they shouldn’t have in the first place.

In the above video, Prentice and Heritage Minister Josée Verner are asked about this, and you can see them struggle to regurgitate the talking points they’ve been handed about the bill. (In Verner’s case, you might argue that language difficulties combined with an inability to hear the question might be an excuse.)

It’s also apparent in Prentice’s 10-minute interview with CBC’s Search Engine (its most popular podcast, which incidentally has been cancelled). Prentice calls common-sense hypotheticals about the law “arcane,” seems unclear about what would happen in certain cases, and hangs up on the interviewer to escape his questions.

But to me this isn’t just about a minister and a bill. It’s something that’s always bothered me about parliamentary politics: the idea that being an MP is all the expertise needed to run a federal department. You don’t need to be a doctor to manage doctors. You don’t need to have a PhD to manage universities. You don’t need to have a driver’s license to manage the transportation department. And you don’t need to understand computers to be in charge of a new copyright bill.

Of course, in many cases ministers are put in areas they would be more comfortable with. Ken Dryden being minister for sport makes sense. But cabinet shuffles being as routine as they are makes it seem as if running the military isn’t so different from foreign affairs or finance.

Maybe it’s true. Maybe being a minister is more about managing, appointing directors, making budgets, drafting legislation and shaking hands at ceremonial functions than it is about getting into the nitty-gritty.

But Prentice and the copyright bill show a clear problem with that premise.

3 thoughts on “Jim Prentice doesn’t understand his own copyright bill

  1. Guillaume Theoret

    You definitely hit upon the main problem with politics, the fact that people drafting the regulations aren’t necessarily qualified to do so. Technology issues just make this more apparent because there’s a greater gap between the people that do understand technology and those that don’t. Put some guy that can’t even use email and has to have them printed out by his wife or secretary (John McCain: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_R9wnMVZE_Q) or another who thinks the internet is a series of tubes in charge and it’s not surprising you get something like the DMCA.

    I’m hoping Prentice keeps getting enough flak about this so that we don’t end up like the USA, sending takedown notices to 50 year old grandmothers who don’t even own a computer or to networked printers ( http://dmca.cs.washington.edu/ ).

    I really wish Josee Verner had heard that question properly though because it was a great question I’d really like to have had a real answer to.

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  2. Eric

    Whatever, if your in charge of making and proposing new laws that effect everyone and imposes harsh penalties against them, you should know what the hell those laws are and how they would be enforced and how they will effect people.

    Up until now I felt the outcry against this bill was mostly from people who wanted to keep downloaded free movies. After hearing this moron on Search Engine I realize this is a poorly thought out bill and the minister himself won’t give more then 10 minutes of this time to explain it, that’s pretty scary.

    As a guy who was happy to see conservatives in power to reign in some of the stupid crap Liberals try to pull, I can see I was wrong.

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  3. princess iveylocks

    Good point, although nowhere in the course of a PhD does one learn how to manage a university, or even deal professionally with the general admin BS. (Sorry, it irks me every time you say it. Huge difference between acquiring management tactics and learning specialized knowledge — the PhD doesn’t even really teach us to teach, you know?)

    My understanding of parliamentary politics is that civil servants and think tanks do all the heavy lifting, and politicians swoop in during the final stages, spin the beats, and drop [the writ] like it’s hot. The MPs are SUPPOSED to speak on behalf of their constituents, guiding legislation based on heartfelt ideology and current trends; hell knows if they do or not.

    Allowing cabinet ministers exposure to different portfolios lets them become stronger leadership candidates and avoid becoming despots in their own domains. Should they bounce around every few months? No. I agree with you fully there. But ultimately Prentice’s leadership ability is in question, not his web-surfing skills.

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