Michael Geist: Canada’s Privacy Gadfly

A privacy hero. A marketer's nuisance

A privacy hero. A marketer’s nuisance

This story originally appeared in Feb. 25 special Privacy Issue of Marketing. Tickets for Marketing’s Understanding Privacy in 2013 half-day conference are still available.

The internet has a crush on Michael Geist. The technology lawyer and columnist is adored by internet activists and pro-web communities like Reddit, a popular social news site where users have called him a “national superhero” and even suggested he be named chair of the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission.

Very few marketers, however, are among Geist’s legion of fans. The ad industry has clashed with the University of Ottawa law professor on several issues, dating back to 2008 when he created an online tool, IOptOut.ca, that enabled consumers to send a request to opt out of marketing phone calls from hundreds of organizations and businesses with a single click.

More recently he ruffled industry feathers when he reported that groups including the Canadian Marketing Association and the Interactive Advertising Bureau of Canada were lobbying the government to ease anti-spam measures during “backroom consultations” that occurred after the regulatory committee hearings.

The pro-privacy stance he takes in his columns, which run in the Toronto Star, the Ottawa Citizen and on his personal blog, is often at odds with the agenda of marketers excited about “big data” era opportunities for more precise ad targeting based on an endless stream of personal data.

Privately, those in the industry might vent about Geist, but none of the association representatives or marketing execs contacted for this story were willing to speak publicly about his influence over public opinion or policy.

Asked if people in the marketing industry have taken issue with him, Geist pauses. “I’m sure they have,” he says, with some hesitation. He pauses again and lets out a small laugh. “Yes, they have,” he says.

“When you take the stuff I’ve been saying and the stuff that many of the other groups out there have been saying, there have been multiple occasions when the two sides had different perspectives on these issues,” he says, noting that several ad associations filed formal complaints about his “I Opt Out” tool.

Given the reach of his columns – which are often further syndicated throughout the Postmedia network—and the massive online popularity of his blog on sites like Reddit, Boing Boing and Slashdot, Geist wields significant influence over public opinion. Further, he has considerable clout on Parliament Hill, where the government regularly turns to Geist for advice. He sits on an external advisory committee for the office of the privacy commissioner, was a member of the National Task Force on Spam for the minister of industry in 2004, and appeared before the House of Commons back in 1999 when the government first introduced the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

“Geist has helped to put online issues – including privacy issues – high on the public agenda,” says Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart. “I think it’s fair to say he’s one of the thought leaders in that area. He has been an important member of the committee and over the years I have appreciated his always frank input.”

Stoddart says his reporting is often seen as a rallying cry for those internet advocates who seek more user privacy and more online transparency from the government and companies. “He is incredibly effective at explaining why [privacy issues] matter and at the same time encouraging people to become engaged in a constructive manner.”

Lindsey Pinto, communications director for Open Media, a Canadian internet advocacy group, has seen firsthand how Geist is able to help inform and mobilize people, as he did in the winter of 2012 when he emerged as one of the leading Canadian voices discussing the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), two pieces of controversial American legislation.

“He doesn’t frame issues in a way that’s galvanizing, but he does frame them in a way that makes sense to communities that want to take action,” she says. “Being able to strike that balance, I’d imagine, is a strong driver of his popularity.”

Though Geist does seek to inform readers, he says his intent is rarely advocacy. “I’m not an advocacy organization in the sense that everything is driven towards the advocacy front. Not at all,” he says, though he acknowledges some readers are inspired to lobby the government for more personal privacy after reading his work.

Shane Schick, editor-in-chief of IT World Canada, says Geist’s opponents should recognize his writing as a valid part of the national discussion—even if they disagree with his perspective. “They’d be stupid to think of him as anything but an important part of an ongoing conversation about the impact of digital technology on our lives,” he says. “It’s not like he writes in any way that’s vindictive or self-aggrandizing. And if the telecoms or advertisers can’t answer his criticisms, they’re not going to be able to satisfy the majority of Canadian internet users that they want as customers.”

Geist himself welcomes criticism as much as he does praise from Reddit and the like. “There will often be critics or people who play the role of devil’s advocate on some of the issues on my site,” he says. “That’s totally cool. There are some others who represent different perspectives.”

The great thing about the web, he says, is that it’s a platform that accommodates many different views. “The consumer-focused perspective that I often try to bring to the table is one we didn’t hear as much of in years past,” he says.

“It’s a good thing we see more of that now.”

Photos: Tony Fouhse

There’s more! To read Marketing’s Q&A with Geist, check out the Feb. 25 issue of Marketing. Subscribe today.

For more insight on online privacy and consumer expectation, check out Understanding Privacy in 2013: The New Rules of Engagement on Feb. 28. Tickets are still available

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