Your Government: Powered by Google

Department Of Homeland Security LogoIn a recent short story, Cory Doctorow imagined a world in which Google powers the US border and immigration services. That world conjured up a new term: Scroogled. As nightmarish as the prospect of any fictitious world that can be conjured up by a bastardized compound of the words “Google”, “scrutinized”, “screwed”, it’s not quite as bad as the reality I came across over the last two weeks.

I recently realized I needed to fill out some paperwork to maintain my US permanent resident card. I found the form online, filled it out, and then realized I might actually need to still be in the US in order to submit the form. Something about the US government wanting my bodily fluids I think, and not in a good way.

I was pretty sure the US government already had every scrap of biometrics on me that it could possibly ever need, but rather than blindly submitting the form, I went to the US consulate in Vancouver to see if I could get a definitive answer. Except, apparently, customer service isn’t what a consulate provides, even if you are a legal US resident. The guards at the consulate gave me a 1-900 number to call for information.

Wait…the US government uses 1-900 numbers? Aren’t those those reserved for televangelists and phone sex lines?

Apparently not. For the low-low price of $1.89 a minute, the US government will answer your questions about the absurdly complicated world they created. Hooray! It’s like being stuck in the movie Brazil, but without a British accent to make those whole experience appear polite. But the results were just as comical:

Me: Hi, I’m trying to find out if I need to be in the US to file my I-131? Does that apply if I’ve already got a permanent resident card?

Customs: An I-131? What is that?

Me: It’s a re-entry permit.

Customs: Oh, sorry – we only handle visas on this phone number…

Me: I guess it’s a type of visa…it lets me get back into the country.

Customs: …yeah, we don’t handle that type of visa at this number. Have you tried the US consulate?

Me: Yes. They gave me your number.

Customs: Hmm…well, you know what you might try? Why don’t you Google it?

Google it? Two bucks a minute to be told the answer is on the Internet? What. The. Hell.

At least the guy gave me two other phone numbers to call – one at Vancouver Airport, and the other at the Niagara Falls border crossing. No one picked up the phone at Vancouver Airport, but at the Niagara Falls crossing, I had an eerily familiar experience:

Me: <same as above>

Customs: Hmm, I don’t really know about the I-131.

Me: Well, I’ve tried the US consulate, they gave me a number, and the guy there gave me your number. Any other ideas where I can find out about this I-131?

Customs: Well, why don’t you try the Interne–

Me: <click>

Last month, The Atlantic posed the question: is Google making us stupid? I think we have our answer. Rather than turning the US into a pseudo surveillance state as Cory Doctorow envisioned, perhaps the reality is worse: a government that is so inefficient and ill-informed that it relies on a search engine to provide its citizens with access to their own government.

Hedy Fry Opposes C-61

Hedy Fry, MP Vancouver CentreAshley got a letter from Hedy Fry, MP for Vancouver Centre, in response to a petition she signed in opposition to C-61 (note the weird sentence structure & punctuation is verbatim from the letter):

Dear Ms. Richards:

Thank you for your correspondence concerning Bill C-61, An Act to amend the Copyright Act.

As you are aware the previous Liberal government had tabled a Bill on this issue but it did not come to debate because of the election. The current Conservative Bill has been eagerly awaited since they announced their intentions in December 2007.

Canada has signed two World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties, but has not yet ratified them. The last time the Canadian Copyright Act was amended was in 1997 but these amendments did not address the WIPO treaty agreements. In the interim, communications technology has expanded rapidly. Everyone is in agreement that the Copyright Act has to be amended to reflect the impact of digital technology.

Bill C-61 should strike a balance between the right of creators to be reimbursed for their creative, intellectual property and the desire for consumers to have access to these creative works.

Indeed digital technology serves both the creator and the consumer well. It increases the reach and distribution of creative works as never imagined, before; which is precisely what creators need and it gives consumers easy access to creative works that can entertain, enrich, and educate.

This Bill does not serve either consumer or creator well. It prescribes narrow, punitive solutions to a complex problem. In fact the Bill could very well have the effect of curbing the use of digital technology, to the extent that it becomes useless. This would be a pity! As well implementation of the measures in the Bill would be nearly impossible, unless one abandons all privacy rights or imposes locks on the digital technology that severely limits its application. How to monetize digital technology to reward the creator and allow free and open use by the consumer is challenging.

As Liberals we believe that there should have been extensive consultations with legal experts, creators, distributors, and conventional and digital media industries to find the right balance of solutions. It is typical of the Harper government that they do not consult but impose.

Liberals intend to begin these consultations over the course of the summer so that when the Bill comes to the House we can propose appropriate amendments. Moreover we believe that the Bill should be further subject to public scrutiny if it ever gets to committee stage. It could be that after we consult with the expert groups they believe that Bill C-61 is unsalvageable, in which case one would have to vote against the Bill and rewrite a new one.

These are exciting and challenging times in media communications technology that can broaden the consumption of arts and cultural products, in a manner unheard of since the invention of the printing press. The challenges seemed impossible then but solutions were found that led to a Renaissance of art and culture. We are at a similar point in history, now. We must not use a sledge hammer.

Once again, thank you for writing. Please feel free to contact my office if I may be of further assistance.


Hon. Hedy Fry, M.P.

Vancouver Centre

While I’ve never been a big fan of Hedy Fry, it’s encouraging to see that she’s on the right side on this issue.

Have you contacted your MP about why Bill C-61 should be defeated?