Why the HST is a Labour Issue

I don’t usually post about taxation or provincial politics (do I?). But being one of a sizeable community of technology workers (and workers in many other industries) who are required by law to charge 12% tax instead of 5% tax to customers/clients as of today, I felt that it was really important to correct the deceptive claims about “benefits to small business” (Intuit guesses at some of these benefits here) that are said to result from Harmonization. For readers not privy to this issue due to your far-flungness from it, I offer apologies (it is Canada Day, after all), the official primer, and the word from some of the HST’s opponents).

I’m also teaching a class (sorry, it’s a PDF) about the history of labour and technology this term, and part of the course deals with the growing sector of “contract” workers (workers who are not legally defined as employees of a company). A related issue (for those who work in high technology industries, and especially for those who work for multiple employers/clients) is the fact that since 2002 some workers in B.C. also come under the legal definition of a “high technology professional“, which excludes them from the benefits of overtime and holiday pay provided under British Columbia’s Employment Standards Act (contract workers, who are of more central concern WRT the HST, are obviously outside this legislation entirely, but it’s still important to understand the various shades of “employee” in B.C. to better appreciate the context and options for workers).

The rhetoric about HST in the mainstream media has thus far pivoted mainly around two stories: (1) impact of the tax on consumer household costs (mindless media tropes debunked here) and (2) the businesses who will enjoy reduced administrative costs (this blog post casts some doubt on that assertion, recounting how the B.C. government is going through some restructuring – which can be costly – partly to avoid the increase in HST). I’m not dealing with these issues here, as they are receiving plenty of discussion elsewhere.

The claims about “small business” benefits (mostly touted by the BC Liberals) from harmonization, however, are misleading.

If a small business sells goods and/or services that are already subject to PST, there may be a small benefit in that the HST can now be offset by claiming Input Tax Credits [ITCs]. Currently a business collecting PST for the government can only claim a nominal commission for that collection as against the tax, while with GST (and as will be the case with HST) they can claim all the GST/HST they spend for business purposes as against that tax. No question, this, on the face of it, offers some benefit for some small businesses.

But consider the context. When we think about “small business” we think about the coffee shop on the corner, the plumber, or the freelance software designer. There are many other sorts of contract workers who are legally categorized as “small businesses” – call centre employees, video game beta testers, stock pushers, and so on. These services were not subject to PST under the former tax system. For these workers to now comply with Canada’s tax laws, they will have to charge higher rates to clients or customers in cases where previously PST didn’t apply. For the on-contract call centre worker or game beta tester making just over $30K (net) (the minimum threshold for collecting mandatory GST/HST in most cases), this means that to be in compliance with Revenue Canada, he/she would have to invoice their “client” 12% HST instead of 5% GST. What do you think their “client” would say to that?.

Likely, clients/customers in many industries will be attracted by the lure of non-taxing contractors in the underground economy, as this article in the Winnipeg Free Press asserts.

It’s simply bad for small business. And the smaller the “business”, the worse it gets, it seems. Let’s hope this HST gets reversed.

But more importantly, let’s try not to not forget what the HST pinch is now throwing into sharp relief – the ongoing erosion of our identities as workers and the recasting of us as businesses. This process is wonderful for government revenues, and even better for the bottom line for large businesses. But it’s bad for us down here on the flexibilised assembly line.

Copyright Town Hall Sham-bolics

It appears that by design or chance, the big Town Hall meeting on Copyright law in Toronto yesterday was dominated by one side of the debate – that side representing the (mostly foreign-based) commercial music industry, that side seething epithets about “lawbreakers” and “pirates”, that side representing a tiny minority interest, that narrow slice of Canadian society that weakly resorts to costly litigation to solve its problems when the going gets tough. Blame your customers, eh? Blame the citizenry?

So this is just my short post echoing the growing protest over this entire process, noting the added outrage over Industry Canada apparently modifying copyright consultation submissions. Seems we have a problem – our Federal government is clearly, given its history on this subject, ensnared by the RIAA/MPAA lobbyists, and this purported open-mindedness about policy reform is nothing but political theatre, as could be anticipated.

What to do? Write to your MP, or host your own Copyright Town Hall meeting. Also, you might want to join the Pirate Party of Canada. I did.

“& as is typical of Conservatives, pointlessly drab and sleep-inducingly obvious political theatre”, the moral-aesthetic conscience chimes in…

Open Web Vancouver

I’m attending (and presenting at) Open Web Vancouver next week, celebrating (and problematizing) with many others the many affordances and limitations of open source and open formats in our digitally mediated world. My talk will likely be rather policy-wonkish, as a current concern of mine (and a crucial chapter in my dissertation research) is that of the potential impact of broad public participation in wireless and mobile internet policy development. If you haven’t yet, register here. The leader of the Pirate Party is keynoting, so it’s well worth the hundred and eighty five clams, to my mind.

Hope to see you there.

Room Enough For Everyone :: Canada On the Web

The Tyee is carrying Michael Geist’s succinct report about the upcoming hearings at the CRTC over the future of Internet regulation in Canada. Most of these proposals don’t make any sense – imposing Canadian content requirements on commercial Canadian websites is dubious at best – how would web content hosts respond to such a scheme? Move south? Sign up with godaddy instead of geohost? We would merely, in some roughshod form or other, reproduce the old Can-U.S. media order, with cross-border broadcasters, Canadian-edition web sites and services (the model of ebay.ca/amazon.ca would extend into domains like flickr.ca, or worse, twitter.ca. yuck), and we’d unnecessarily introduce barriers to communication in what is a global, low-barrier-to-entry medium.

About a year ago I was asked to give an opinion to SOCAN to help inform their proposal. I argued that the Internet is highly resistant to regulation by its technical design (summed up in my persistent “the internet is filesharing” slogan above). I actually agree with SOCAN somewhat – I do support an ISP tax to reward content creators – a levy collected and monitored in ways like SOCAN already does for radio, television, and live performance. Such a proposal would meet little resistance from the public (who cares about an additional 5 bucks on your 70 dollar a month broadband bill? especially if it permits one to download anything with impunity), and would install a theoretically fair (if fairly monitored and redistributed) royalty system by which artists (and the companies they sign their lives away to) get paid.

But this idea needs to be isolated from the wider proposals to reproduce Canadian content regulations which worked (albeit in a broken fashion) during one media epoch, but won’t work within our present media ecology. The Internet is not a scarce medium like broadcast, and so there is room enough for everyone.

But underscoring this point, carriers should not be free to dictate how users access the Internet, which has attained something of the status of a public utility in common understanding. If we want to make room enough for everyone, we need to build networks that are accessible by all, using whatever hardware or software, on an equal footing. This means a nationwide broadband and wireless strategy; this also means Net Neutrality. It also means government support for community wireless initiatives.

The battle for an open Internet that gets along with content creators’ desire for remuneration needn’t be that difficult here. It’s much worse in mobile (where there is a scarcity), as I’ve been saying all along.

Vote for Fair Copyright and Culture

I’ve been brewing up a post that I’d hoped to release today, reflecting on the experience of indie music promotion and how it’s changed in a very short time (2-3 years), but I’m putting that on hold, as there are more important matters to address. Specifically, the fate of creators and the creative industries in Canada.

In case you didn’t already know, we’ve got an incumbent minority government that unilaterally, and without Parliamentary debate, slashed approximately $45 million in funding to the Arts this summer. In addition, this same government has been repeatedly trying to introduce U.S.-style copyright reform legislation that, much like our PM’s speeches, appear to be plagiarized from foreign documents. The framing given for this proposed legislation is that it is intended to protect creators’ rights. Clearly, given the recent funding cuts, not to mention the characterization of artists as “spoiled children“, this claim is hypocritical. Some argue it’s de facto censorship.

Among the myriad reasons to not vote for the Conservative Party of Canada (hey, Net Neutrality!), their inconsistent positions on the value of artists, musicians, authors, and other creatives should convince anyone still disposed to vote for them to change their minds. Either the Conservatives have not thought these policies through (the charitable view), or they have thought this contradiction through and are happy with it – seizing upon any opportunities to reinforce copyright protections for the IP of big business and abandon public funding for creatives.

Michael Geist has posted a Copyright Pledge, which many candidates have signed already, with many more coming on board as I write this. If you care about fair copyright, and if you don’t want to see U.S.-style infringements on Canadians’ privacy, or their rights to fair dealing, then find a candidate you can vote for in this list, or vote-swap if you have to to ensure the Conservative party of Canada does not form even a minority government this time around. Fair copyright policies enable us all to quote, copy, reuse, mix and match, you know, the basic stuff that beings that have and make culture do (there are no arts without copying or mimicry). To vote against fair copyright drives a stake in the heart of participatory culture and media. The foundations of this very Internet medium, and our rights to participate in culture at all are right now at stake.

And now – the punchline. If you haven’t already seen this, or if you’re unfamiliar with the terrain of arts funding in a bilingual, multicultural Canada, this video says it all:

Torrent Tracking on Open Networks 101

Today is Northern Voice (I’m presenting tomorrow, but today is the unconference, most of which I hope to catch!), but right now I’m riveted to my laptop (poring over comments about torrent tracking) before I head out to UBC. Really good back n forth over at Nicholas Weaver’s Random Thoughts regarding claims as to whether it’s actually possible to block torrent traffic (more over at Copyfight). I’m convinced such tracking measures can be circumvented and that torrent sharing can’t be stopped. These debates seem to reaffirm this position, notwithstanding drilling into the tech nitty-gritty.

To repeat – the web is an Open network. Strategies to Close it go against its grain, and are stupendously impractical if not impossible.

The Internet Is Filesharing :: On ISP Levies and Creators’ Rights to Remuneration in Canada

I was recently asked by the Songwriters’ Association of Canada (SAC) to submit a briefing on why file sharing is inevitable, and why a levy system for ISPs makes sense. (The SAC is in the process of submitting a proposal along these lines to the Canadian government, in light of the political deliberations over where our copyright law is headed).

Here‘s the draft of my briefing to them (PDF, 176K). The gist of it? The internet IS file sharing. Comment, suggest revisions, and correct me where I’m wrong, if you please.

Read the SAC’s Proposal and sign up to support it here.

P2P in Canada

I was interviewed this morning for Global National on the subject of P2P lawsuits by the RIAA. Every time there’s some sensational story to be mined, the television media seem to jump. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

I tried to stay focused on the Canadian angle, making the points that (1) ISPs in Canada are not obliged to reveal the identities attached to IP addresses and (2) despite pressure from the CRIA (Canada’s branch plant of the RIAA), Canada’s private copying levy (among other things) makes such lawsuits unlikely to succeed here. I also tried to make the point that free distribution of music hurts only a small fraction of musicians (mainly the big celebrities), and that trends in the ongoing reshaping of the music industry confirm this pattern. Hopefully, the messaging is clear on the news tonight. Hopefully I look OK.

They also wanted to film me downloading the new Radiohead LP, but I had already paid for it late last night (FYI – I shelled out £5), and the downloading cannot happen yet. So they got some shots of my torrent search bar and some farting around on emusic (the most recent Twilight Circus Dub Soundsystem is ace, btw!). That’s good – hopefully the people watching Global will pick up a few tips on how to take control of their music acquisition practices back from the iTunes Music Store and its ilk.

U.S. Justice Department values ISPs over people

Ah, I see the baldfaced ignorance of an administration that invades Afghanistan and Iraq has trickled into the sphere of Internet regulation as well (Thanks to Flo for pointing me here).. To wit:

“Regulators should be careful not to impose regulations that could limit consumer choice and investment in broadband facilities” (Thomas Barnett, US Justice Department).

I’m imagining the frightful amount of cognitive dissonance it requires to make such a statement without laughing. The real problem is, of course, with ISPs imposing regulations that limit choice and investment in the information economy. This is not to say that investment and choice are the terms on which I would defend Net Neutrality per se, but you get the idea; anyone who wishes to defend it on these terms could do so very easily. This is classic U.S. conservatism – contradicting both intelligence and public opinion in the interest of affirming an industry’s right to remain concentrated in as few hands as possible.

I fear we might be next for the chop.