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.