Internet law professor Michael Geist looks at how Facebook has the power to affect legislation.
The power of Facebook, not just a social networking tool
If 2006 was the year of YouTube, 2007 has been Facebook's year. The growth of social media, led by Facebook, has taken the world by storm.
Since January, Facebook has added 250,000 new users each day with nearly 60 million people worldwide now using the site.
The hyper-growth does not tell the whole story, however.
Facebook has also acquired considerable attention regarding its user privacy policies, online marketing strategies and the short-sighted decision of some companies and governments to block employee access to the site.
While these issues have shone the spotlight on some of the challenges of social media, the lasting lesson of Facebook may come from a series of events that unfolded over the past two weeks in Canada.
They demonstrate that Facebook is far more than just a cool way to catch up with old friends; rather, it is an incredibly effective and efficient tool that can be used to educate and galvanise grassroots advocacy, placing unprecedented power into the hands of individuals.
On December 1st I launched the Fair Copyright for Canada Facebook group, with limited expectations. This seemed like a good way to educate the public about the Canadian government's plans to introduce new copyright reform within a matter of days. I sent invitations to a hundred or so Facebook friends and seeded the group with links to a few relevant websites.
What happened next was truly remarkable. Within hours the group started to grow, first 50 members, then 100, and then 1000. One week later there were 10,000 members. Two weeks later there were over 25,000 members with a new member joining the group every 30 seconds.
The big numbers tell only part of the story. The group is home to over 500 wall posts, links to 150 articles of interest, over 50 discussion threads, dozens of photos and nine videos.
Ten days ago, it helped spur on an offline protest when Kempton Lam, a Calgary technologist, organized 50 group members to descend on the Canadian Industry Minister, Jim Prentice's, local open house to express their views on copyright.
While Facebook was not the only source of action, the momentum was unquestionably built on thousands of Canadians, who were determined to have their voices heard.
Jim Prentice has delayed introducing new copyright reforms
Much to the surprise of sceptics who paint government as unable or unwilling to listen to public concerns, those voices had an immediate impact. Ten days after the Facebook group's launch, Jim Prentice delayed introducing the new copyright reforms, seemingly struck by the rapid formation of concerned citizens who were writing letters and raising awareness.
Not only had tools like Facebook had an immediate effect on the government's legislative agenda, but the community that developed around the group also led to a "crowdsourcing" of knowledge. Canadians from coast to coast shared information, posed questions, posted their letters to politicians, and started a national conversation on copyright law in Canada.
This scenario cannot be repeated for every issue. In this instance, Canadians increasingly recognized the detrimental effect of the proposed copyright reforms on consumer rights, privacy, and free speech, and were moved to act.
Yet for similarly placed concerns, the lesson of the past two weeks is that politicians, companies, and other organizations can ill-afford to ignore a medium that is capable of mobilizing tens of thousands within a matter of days. Those caught flatfooted may ultimately find themselves struggling to save face.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.