I had my first real experience with astroturfing today. I perhaps should say it’s my first experience that I’m aware of. Wikipedia describes astroturfing as:

political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but are disguised as spontaneous, popular “grassroots” behavior. The term refers to AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.

The fake in this case is a web site called Balanced Copyright for Canada. The site claims to be in favour of a balanced approach to copyright, taking a middle ground between the rights of the content creators and the rights of the public. I think we all want that. But the site simply states that this balance is achieved with Bill C‑32, which is ridiculous. Just because you say so, it’s not necessarily true.

So who’s behind the web site? I don’t know. The whois entry for the domain name contains no information about who registered it. None. According to Michael Geist’s article, “The Copyright Lobby’s Astroturf Campaign in Support of C‑32,”

A member list, which featured many record company executives, has now disappeared from public view. Requests to identify who is behind the site have been stonewalled thus far, with both ACTRA and AFM Canada explicitly stating they are not part of the site (this is no surprise since most creator groups have been critical of C‑32).

I personally have no proof that this is true, but it makes logical sense. Why would the people behind the site make any effort to hide their own identities so thoroughly if they had nothing to hide? It’s not unreasonable to conclude that their attempt to persuade people to their line of thinking would fail if we knew who they were. I don’t know that the entertainment industry is behind this site, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

So what did I do? I registered with the site!

Registration was simple, you’re required to complete every field on the registration page. Though I hesitated, I did enter my name and address as requested. Initially I thought this was a simple matter of harvesting information.

Once I was in, I was confronted with a to-do list of how I could take action. First was to register with the site. Check! Second was to complete my profile and e‑mail. Check! Third is to send an e‑mail message to my MP. No check for this one, thanks.

What amazes me is that you cannot edit the message they want you to send. It appears in a scrolling field so you can read it, but your only options are to click ‘send’ or leave the page. The message is automatically addressed to your MP, which is why they require your full mailing address. For a group claiming to be standing up for all the creative folks who entertain us with their art, you’d think they might realize we can express our own thoughts.

Oh, you can choose to send a messages as a member of the general public or a message as an employee. Looking at the messages, I realized that the ’employee’ they’re talking about is that of the entertainment industry. This itself is an indication of who’s behind this site. Not everyone who wants to protect their creative works has a media conglomerate behind them. And for a message that they want you to send in your own name, they could have written something much better.

As most of you are not ’employees,’ here’s the message they would have you send to your MP, with my information stripped out:

Dear [your MP]:

My name is [your name]  and I am a voter who lives in your riding. I am writing to express my support for robust copyright reform in this Parliament.

I support a balanced, modern and effective Copyright Act in Canada. The recent introduction of Bill C‑32 is a starting point to achieve this long-overdue goal.

As a voter who lives in your riding, I urge your support in Parliament to enact the copyright reforms our country needs.

I believe that artists, other content creators and the people who invest in them have the right to be compensated for their creations. They deserve a law that protects their work from theft and unauthorized use on the Internet. The law should also respect and promote the legal purchase and enjoyment of copyrighted works by consumers.

With the tabling of Bill C‑32, Parliament has a real opportunity to bring our copyright rules into the digital age. With the right amendments, we can get there.

In the absence of clear rules, Canadian consumers lack a clear signal that downloading digital products from the Internet without payment is not allowed. The operators of Canadian-based websites that encourage and profit from much of the world’s online piracy seem to act as if there were no law at all. As a result, Canada has become a global destination of choice for the operators of pirate websites.

It’s embarrassing. Canada has been singled out on the international stage for its failure to uphold intellectual property rights, joining the ranks of copyright rogue countries. Our brand has been compromised with our largest and most valuable trading partners, and their investors.

Copyright reform is about fairness and balance: fairness to artists and other content creators balanced by fairness to consumers who enjoy and use their work.

As a voter in your riding, I urge you to build on the start provided by Bill C‑32’s introduction, and to advance the passage of Copyright Act amendments that work for all Canadians.

Sincerely,

[your name, address, and e‑mail address]

It’s amazing that an issue that nearly everyone agrees on is so incredibly divisive. I agree that artists should be paid for their work and not have it used without their permission. No question about it. I just don’t believe that Bill C‑32 is remotely balanced enough to become law. It’s a good start for discussion, but nothing more.

And what are the people behind balancedcopyrightforcanada.ca thinking? The site itself gives no clue about who made it so any visitor should be immediately sceptical. And this is the Internet … it’s really hard to keep a secret. Those behind the site will be uncovered, though we likely already know who they are. I sent a message using the site’s contact page:

Your site gives no indication of who is behind it. Who is running the show? I would think a site looking for popular support wouldn’t be so mysterious.

So who are you, back there in the shadows?

I don’t expect a reply, and certainly not one that answers my question. In the meantime, I’m off to delete my account.