I was looking for connections between science and the law when I stumbled upon the very interesting (and probably a little controversial) topic of genetically modified organisms. Here’s what I found…
The Harvard Mouse
The Harvard mouse is considered a landmark case because it’s an example of the limits of our patent laws. In Canada genes, individual cells, and microorganisms have been granted patents since the 1980s, However, something as complex as a mammal had not.
Harvard College created a process to insert a cancer causing gene in mice for research. They sought a patent for the process and the product (the mouse). The Americans allowed the patent but Canada was different. In 2002 the Canadian Supreme Court’s interpretation of the word invention made a higher life form , like a mouse, unpatentable. Canada became the first major jurisdiction to refuse to recognize the patentability of higher life forms. [Harvard College v. Canada (Commissioner of Patents), 2002 SCC 76,  4 S.C.R. 45]
Monsanto Canada Inc.v. Schmeiser (SCC, 2004).
Just two years after the Harvard Mouse case came another important lawsuit. Since the 1980s, Canada has allowed the patenting of genes and individual cells (but not higher life forms). Crops like genetically modified canola have been patented. This means that if farmers want to grow them, they must pay the company that owns the patent.
One concern with genetically modified organisms is that the genetic material might spread outside its intended area. Seeds could travel by wind or the crop could cross-pollinate with the neighbouring field.
This is what Percy Schmeiser claimed when Monsanto took him to court for growing Canola that contained their patented herbicide resistant gene. He claimed that seeds from a neighbouring field landed on his land. Eventually the Supreme Court found that Schmesier had infringed on the patent by growing the crop. Schmeiser argued that the plant was a higher life form and could not be patented. The court agreed that a plant was a higher life form and could not be patented, but the herbicide resistant gene could be. Schmeiser was ordered to remove the canola from his land but was not forced to pay any money to Monsanto. [Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser, 2004 SCC 34,  1 S.C.R. 902]
Transgenic organisms are living things with genetic information that has been added from another species. A Canadian company has created transgenic salmon that grow to full size at twice the rate of a normal fish. (Read how here.) The laws and regulations around it are a bit murky. As it gets closer to the grocery store shelf it can give us a better idea how transgenic organisms fit under our current laws (and any new ones).
While we wait… did you know that transgenic fish have been available for purchase in Canada already? Not in our grocery stores, but in our pet stores.
GloFish™ were briefly available in Canadian pet stores until Environment Canada found out about them. (Read more at: “CBC – Marketplace: Growing Nemo”.) The fish are obviously a bit different from the Salmon because they are not meant to be eaten. They made it into the Canadian marketplace before getting government approval and have since been banned from being imported. GloFish™ are a genetically modified aquarium staple, the zebra danio, that has been genetically altered to glow. The glowing effect has been added by introducing a gene from sea coral. The example illustrates the challenges faced by our government and regulatory agencies as innovation outpaces our laws and ability to enforce them.
As science continues to advance and push legal and ethical boundaries expect to see many of these issues brought to court.
So you are writing a blogpost or a Facebook update and you find an online article that seems pertinent. You are a helpful, efficient and thorough person … naturally you provide a hyperlink. Easy as pie. Perfectly normal. Happens millions of times a day. Right? Right.
But…guess what the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) is looking at today? Whether or not hyperlinking is “republishing”. Why is this important? Well, because if hyperlinking does amount to republishing, then, when you hyperlink, you might become liable for some of things in the article you linked to. For example: if there are any defamatory comments, they could be deemed your defamatory comments, and you could find yourself at the wrong end of a lawsuit. Surprise.
Although you might think that, by 2010, this topic would have already been decided, it has not. The wheels of the law move ever so slowly.
Stay tuned for an update on the decision!
Want a few links for more information about the case (hmmmmm??)?
The BC Court of Appeal decision.
Comment on the BC Court of Appeal decision.
Live tweeting from the SCC can be followed by searching for #Crookes on Twitter.
Google Buzz, a new social networking site, was launched last week. Originally, it was an opt-out service, which meant users of Gmail were automatically signed up and their most frequent email contacts were automatically added as friends. These contacts were automatically granted access to Readers – including any comments – and Picasa photo albums. Furthermore, Buzz revealed the real names of many people using pseudonyms in email contact.
This caused a huge outcry. People were not pleased with having their information exposed to the world. While some people were simply annoyed their contacts found out about the embarrassing blogs they subscribe to, others faced huge risks by having their information exposed.
Many of those outraged were journalists who wanted to protect their sources and contacts. Protecting the confidentiality of sources is an important part of journalism and something journalists in Canada are fighting to protect at the Supreme Court.
Others faced a very real threat to their safety, especially people who are trying to keep their location and other information private from abusive ex-partners. Someone may have their abuser as an email contact, but that does not mean they want to share personal information with them.
These are not small concerns. One of the LRC sites which has seen a large growth in visitors in the past six months is VIOLET: Law & Abused Women. One third of all homicides in Alberta are related to domestic violence and one of the most dangerous times for someone in an abusive relationship is when they leave. Email contact can present a safer way of communicating with an abuser, but not if your information is exposed.
To its credit, Google has responded to the criticisms and taken steps to improve Buzz’s privacy. However, it may be too little, too late. Chief Executive Eric Schmidt may claim “nobody was harmed” by having their contacts, blog subscriptions, and photos made available to the world, but many people disagree.
Here in Canada, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart released a statement asking Google to explain how it has addressed privacy concerns since its launch.
“We have seen a storm of protest and outrage over alleged privacy violations and my Office also has questions about how Google Buzz has met the requirements of privacy law in Canada,” Commissioner Stoddart said. She also chastised Google for not consulting with her office before launching Buzz, “My Office has a variety of resources available to help companies build privacy into their products and services. When companies consult with us at the development stage, they can avoid the problems we’ve seen in recent days.”
In my last post on privacy issues and social networking, I wondered if people wanted to protect their privacy on the Internet, or if social networking sites were changing the way people feel about it. Based on the reaction to Google’s recent foray in to social networking, I’d say privacy is something people want – and in some cases need – to protect.
The Legislating Sexualities in Alberta panel is today from 12-2pm in FAB 220 on the U of A Main Campus. I’m looking forward to going, but if you can’t be there, don’t worry. CJSR’s Gaywire is recording it and you’ll be able to download the audio.
In my last post on LSA, I mentioned my hope that there would be some discussion on the use of social media around Bill 44. Therefore, I was very excited to see that Edmonton blogger MasterMaq, with Edmonton Journal columnist Paul Simons (who won a Civil Liberties award from the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre for her coverage of the Bill), complied some data on the Twitter stream around Bill 44 for May and June 2009. There isn’t much analysis yet, but there is a lot of raw data just waiting for it.
I started reading blogs because I love to learn and I’m happy to find that writing for blogs provides similar opportunities.
When I first read the description for the Legislating Sexualities panel, I assumed ‘declaration of pride in Edmonton’ was referring to the fact that Edmonton, while by no means free of discrimination, is a fairly open city. Former City Councilor Michael Phair was the first openly gay politician elected in Canada. The Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services grew out of one of the first university LGBT ally groups in Canada and provides U of A with “an interdisciplinary ‘hub’ for scholarly work in sexual-minority studies,” runs CampfYrefly for sexual minority youth and has been running the InsideOut Speaker’s Series since 2003. The Exposure Festival had a successful third year and is now one of the city’s established summer events. And Gaywire brings Edmontonians an awesome hour of LGBT news and event every week. I look around me and think, “Well of course there’s pride in Edmonton.”
When I looked at the event description a little bit later and a little bit closer, however, I realized it referred to the mayoral declaration of pride in Edmonton. I had no idea what that meant. I did a little bit of research (ie: Googling) and discovered that Edmonton hasn’t always been so open.
Recently there has been a push to have cities officially recognize Pride events and that struggle continues. There has been strong opposition from politicians and in some cases it has taken rulings by Human Rights Commissions to enforce recognition. In 2003, then-mayor Bill Smith said declaring Gay Pride Week in Edmonton would go against his religious beliefs. A complaint was filed with the Human Rights Commission arguing this decision was discriminatory and based on the mayor’s personal belief. Smith relented before a decision could be made on the case and Pride week was official declared by the city.
Canadians take pride in being one of the first nations in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, but often forget it was through the Supreme Court’s enforcement of the Charter, not because of political will. It’s only been 40 years since homosexuality was decriminalized, and 30 years since Operation Soap. Human Rights legislation exists to protect people from the tyranny of the majority and are a vital part of an open society. I’m glad Canada has such legislation and our courts and commissions are willing to enforce it. I look forward to a discussion of how such legislation has affected the lives of Canadians.
When Facebook’s privacy settings changed in December, users were given the option to keep their custom privacy settings or switch to the new defaults (check out Terms of Service Tracker for an excellent breakdown of the changes). The new default settings, however, are not very secure. Users must customize various settings if they want their profiles to remain private. A recent article in the New York Times explains The 3 Facebook Settings Every User Should Check Now (h/t Slaw.ca).
That is, of course, only if you want to make your profile private. According to Mark Zuckerberg, one of the founders of Facebook, not everyone does. In an interview with TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington at the recent Crunchie Awards, Zuckerberg claimed that social norms have changed and people are no longer as concerned with privacy as they once were.
Is this true? And if he feels this way, why has Zuckerberg made his own profile so secure? After the changes were made on December 9, Zuckerberg’s profile was briefly open to everyone. Whether this was on purpose or a result of a lack of understanding of the new default settings remains unclear. On December 11, he wrote on his fan page:
For those wondering, I set most of my content on my personal Facebook page to be open so people could see it. I set some of my content to be more private, but I didn’t see a need to limit visibility of pics with my friends, family or my teddy bear :)
Despite the lack of “need to limit visibilty of pics”, Zuckerberg quickly changed his settings and his profile remains secure, with only his Wall and Info visible.
So does online privacy matter? Or is it true that are people are becoming less and less concerned? Some bloggers have claimed Zuckerberg is “more right than wrong”, while others have disagreed and raised questions about the motives behind the statements.
Some Facebook users do still care about privacy and were not impressed with the new defaults. On January 27, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) launched a new investigation in to Facebook in response to a complaint filed by an individual who claimed “the new default settings would have made his information more readily available than the settings he had previously put in place.”
Facebook had agreed to implement changes to address the concerns raised in the July 2009 report. According to the statement released by the OPC, however
Since then…changes to the site’s privacy information, settings and tools have sparked criticism from users who feel that personal information posted to the site is, in some instances, even more exposed now than before.
Perhaps social norms have not changed as much as Zuckerberg thinks.
What about you? Are you on Facebook? (The LRC is.) How secure are your privacy settings? Did you accept the new default settings? Is it important to keep this information private, or is it unreasonable to expect privacy online?
For more discussion on online privacy, including the implications of reduced privacy, check out this video (transcript) of Cory Doctrow, an author, journalist and technology activist, speaking at the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom 2008 Conference.
Here at the LRC, we try to keep abreast of what is happening with both technology and information management. Recently Jean-Claude Guédon spoke at the University of Alberta about his observations regarding what is happening in the world of digitization.
I’ll post an announcement when the recording of the talk is available on the U of A Library website. For now, here is a taste of what he had to say.
Beginning with the premise that a document or text can be approached as a technology, he went on to examine e-book readers, i-pods and the “One Laptop per Child” project as ways in which digital text is being handled. He reminded us of the importance of asking “who is going to control what about these digital texts?” He explored some of the pros and cons of Google’s massive digitization project. Consider that, although page images are available for anyone to download and read, the more powerful features of search, data mining and so forth are only available through Google. He pointed out the power of the network-distributed approach (e.g. open-source software, Wikipedia) to enhance both personal creativity and public productivity and speculated, “Could this approach be harnessed in the world of digitization?”