Let me vote, dammit

In Frank v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 ONCA 536, the Court of Appeal for Ontario decided that Canadian expatriates could be denied the ability to vote after 5 years of residency abroad, in spite of the Charter clause guaranteeing citizens the right to vote, reversing an earlier court ruling that had vacated the temporal limit. Letting all citizens vote would be “unfair” to Canadians who live in Canada, apparently.

As a Canadian expat (US green card holder), I sincerely hope this case is overturned on appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Like the respondents, who “attended university in the U.S. and remained there to pursue careers in their chosen professions”, my choice to be in the United States to advance my studies and career in the law is a matter of circumstance. Acquiring a green card did not signal the surrender of my citizenship and all its rights, responsibilities, and privileges.

It’s already annoying enough when the tax agencies of the two countries—CRA and IRS—use different definitions of residency for tax purposes… which differ from the governments’ definitions of residency for immigration purposes… which apparently differ from some U.S. states’ definitions of residency for driver’s licences…

… but now to convolute the meaning of a citizen’s right with a resident’s right?

I remain invested in the direction of the Canadian government and try to stay informed about Canadian politics. I still receive communications from multiple Canadian parties, am a supporter of two activist groups involved in IP and media law, and continue to engage in discourse with resident Canadians about the state of the nation.

As an individual with only one citizenship—Canadian—being disenfranchised at the end of five years from voting in Canadian federal elections would leave me with no democratic representation in any jurisdiction, since noncitizens in America are forbidden from participating in the U.S. electoral system even as a donor to any campaign. Even Canadian felons would have more political representation than I would have. This untenable situation would reasonably drive an expat to pursue foreign citizenship, if only to regain those rights and privileges that one would have expected Canadian citizenship to guarantee.[1]

The Charter doesn’t define the right to vote by residency, but by citizenship. Section 3 provides:

Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of the members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.

The majority opinion contends that residency has been historically a factor in implementing the electoral system that enables citizens to exercise the right to vote, but the court erroneously conflates the implementation of a constitutional right with the acceptable boundaries on that right.

It embraces the vague notion of protecting the “social contract”, a principle in which individuals who make laws must also obey them, as a legitimate purpose to restrict the voting rights of expatriates. But really, expatriates remain bound by Canadian laws, particularly those affecting taxation, citizenship, and property…[2] Laws passed in Canada, far from having “little to no practical consequences” for my expat family as the majority opinion contends, affect us financially (at least in terms of loans and taxes), affect my parents’ property and retirement assets and income, and influence our choices later down the road about whether or not to return to Canada.

… and it’s not like every resident citizen is affected by every law anyways! Bear with me for a moment; consider this perspective: the scope of a law often excludes those people who supported it. A law limiting concealed carry handguns, for instance, would probably be passed by those people who themselves have no need or desire to engage in the actions that the law prohibits. Indeed, this ruling actually enables resident citizens to violate the social contract principle supposedly being protected: a hypothetical law imposing 50% taxes on foreign income earned by nonresident citizens, for example, could be passed by representatives of resident citizens living comfortably in Vancouver and Toronto unaffected, while disenfranchised citizens abroad would be the ones affected.

This case better make its way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. It’s worth noting that American expatriates retain the right to vote indefinitely while abroad, and even some citizens who have never even set foot on U.S. soil can nevertheless vote in several states. Hurrah to the Constitution?
2. Increasingly in today’s world, laws that apply to surveillance and foreign intelligence, too, come to mind.

Avoid flying domestic in China

Xi'an Xianyang International Airport (XIY) departure hall

I originally intended to blog about each city I visited during this vacation in Hong Kong & mainland China, but I got so busy with the actual tourism that I didn’t end up writing anything except for Hong Kong.

However, recent experiences flying (first from Xi’an to Shanghai Pudong, and then from Beijing to my birthplace) have been sufficiently dissatisfactory to warrant a rant about the state of domestic air travel in China.

1. China Southern Airlines problems

Supposedly this is one of the 10 worst airlines in the world, according to Business Insider/Zagat.

Xi’an to Shanghai

Our flight from Xi’an to Shanghai was delayed by about 3 hours. The incoming flight was late supposedly due to weather in Shanghai, so it wasn’t necessarily the airline’s fault. However, communication about the matter was rather poor (see complaints below about the XIY airport) and the delay estimates didn’t seem to be updated in the airline’s electronic systems, even though they knew pretty early on that our flight wouldn’t be able to leave til nearly midnight. China Southern’s website, Google, and (I think) FlightAware, were all providing inaccurate information as a consequence.

Meanwhile, multiple other airlines seemed to have no problem getting planes to fly the same route on time.

Beijing to my hometown

The flight left on time.

Curious observation, not so much a complaint: why did they think it necessary to serve food on a 1.5 hour short haul flight that left at 11 pm? It was a sausage bun of the sort you’d find at an Asian bakery for very cheap… not that one should expect very much of economy class airline food.

I did have an issue with the no mobile phone policy; mobile phone use is prohibited, even in airplane mode. Supposedly this is a Chinese government regulation for which foreigners have been detained for violating. I’m sure older planes with unshielded wiring could be affected by the cumulative effects of everyone’s EM interference—and that’s probably part of why China’s rules haven’t caught up to Europe’s or the US’s—but I really doubt the A320 would have faced much risk from smartphones in airplane mode. A flight attendant actually came around to enforce the rule. Oh well. I suppose we’ll have to blame the government for this obsolete rule.

Deplaning on the tarmac
Deplaning on the tarmac toward a bus to the gate. Sorry for the blur; I took the picture in a hurry.

2. Airport problems

Xi’an Xianyang International Airport (XIY)

The airport was grand and modern—far bigger than was necessary given the remoteness of and air traffic to that city. When we arrived from Hong Kong by Dragonair, we were basically the only arriving international flight; all the other gates seemed to be empty, and our flight’s baggage came on the only active conveyor belt, right next to a sign with such bad Engrish that it substituted an f for what have been a t in “tag”.

The departure hall, too, was much bigger than this city needed. There were other more serious problems, though.

Xi'an Xianyang International Airport (XIY) departure hall
Xi’an Xianyang International Airport (XIY) departure hall

For one, the technology seemed to outpace the capabilities of the people—a recurring observation on this trip. Airport employees made simultaneous, overlapping announcements on the PA system, talking over each other. They also made that gross blowing sound into the microphone each time before starting an announcement, as a mic check. For comparison, I’m told that at many Western airports, announcements are recorded and placed into an automated, prioritized queue (e.g. see Phonetica).

Second, the departure hall featured at least one smoking chamber. The one I observed was a glass booth for people to smoke their cigarettes… but the glass walls didn’t reach the floor, so the booth wasn’t actually isolated from the surrounding environment. Smokers also didn’t close the door fully, which led to that entire gate area smelling like smoke, unfortunately triggering my asthmatic cough repeatedly for those three hours we were delayed there.

Third, there was a ridiculous lack of use of digital information systems. The counter at the gate where we were waiting appeared to lack an airline reservations/logistics computer, and delays were usually not reflected on the airport displays, instead being announced in Chinese and broken Engrish on the PA. On the counter hung a piece of paper, hand-filled with the flight number and the fact that there was a delay. Eventually when we boarded, I don’t even recall if our tickets were scanned—just checked by the gate agent a flight attendant at the gate.

XIY gate counter, with no computer or TV screens specific to that gate
XIY gate counter, with no computer or TV screens specific to that gate

Whatever illusions of modernity and professionalism one got from the physical appearance of the airport were disrupted by these oversights.

Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) Terminal 2

Never mind that Terminal 2 (T2) and Terminal 3 (T3) are practically separate airports with a minimum connection time (MCT) of 160 minutes for domestic<->international connections… or that the Airport Express train only goes from T3->T2 and not the other way around…

Possibly because of the passenger load at PEK, the airline would not accept checked baggage prior to 3 hours before departure. Consequently, I could not go through security, and had to lug around my heavy suitcase to coffee and dinner in the unsecured area for a few hours… while coping with the dearth of general (i.e. not paid restaurant) seating space prior to security. While I was sipping my drink, I began wheezing and coughing—remember my allergy-related cough?—because some unscrupulous customers were smoking, indoors, in an open restaurant. I can’t believe no one else complained. At last, a waitress told the smoker to put it out.

The story doesn’t get much better after screening. Once inside, I found that my boarding pass did not indicate a gate, and that the terminal displays did not show a gate assignment. My impression, and I could be wrong, is that PEK—and perhaps other airports—does not assign gates until shortly before departure. Unfortunately, that also meant no clear direction to go in the secured area, and nowhere really to sit…

Well, hey, at least I got to charge my phone at a charging station… which other patrons seemed to treat as a garbage bin in table form.

Patrons' food and garbage at a charging station in PEK T2
Patrons’ food and garbage at a charging station in PEK T2

3. The alternative: high speed rail

High speed rail in China is a wonderful thing. We took it from Shanghai to Nanjing in 2nd class, and from Nanjing to Beijing in 1st class seats. In each segment, top speeds exceeded 300 km/h. Trains always left and arrived on time, and seats were more spacious than any economy class seats on an airplane. Typically trains run about every 15 minutes along this route, and all the ones we took on this trip seemed to be filled.

High speed rail from Shanghai
High speed rail from Shanghai

Here are some photos of Chinese high speed rail stations and trains, from my last visit in 2012:

Given that a trip from Shanghai to Beijing in 2nd class would only be 553 RMB (about $89 USD)—uniform pricing regardless of when the ticket is purchased, unlike airfare—and that train stations are generally more convenient to get to/from than airports are—where a high speed rail link exists, I would definitely choose it.

4. Is it any better in the US?

I don’t fly that much in the US, and when I do, it’s often a rather short flight between Philadelphia and Boston. JetBlue and American are pretty nice, though. Even then, the convenience of taking Amtrak to/from 30th Station in Philadelphia and South Station in Boston usually makes rail travel far preferable to short haul flights when rail is an option.

But I doubt the US will ever develop high speed rail as China has. There’s not enough space or money or will—and, arguably, there is no comparable need.

Do you have comparable complaints about domestic air travel in China or the US? Please share.

How should Internet regulation of content work?

I first published the following query in a closed discussion forum for CIS 125/LAW 613 (Technology & Policy) at Penn Law. It is reposted here with minor edits.

Understanding the layers of the Internet (TCP/IP, etc) helps us to think about Internet governance in terms of allocating scarce resources, such as IP addresses and domain names. There is another layer to regulating the Internet that has little to do with scarcity or technical concerns: content on the World Wide Web. While people around the world effectively must agree to the same technical standards and the same mechanisms of allocating scarce resources in order for the Internet to function, there seems to be disagreement on which laws relating to speech and content apply, the geographic boundaries (if any) within which they apply, and to what extent foreign entities must comply. These concerns are obvious when we talk about the “Great Firewall of China”, highlighted by Google’s pull-out from mainland China, but less so evident when talking about countries that don’t use technical measures to censor citizens’ Web access.

This week, the issue became topical when Russia’s media/telecom regulator clarified existing rules on use of an individual’s image, seeming to outlaw certain forms of the Internet phenomenon known as memes.[1] The clarification came on the heels of a Russian court ruling in favour of a singer whose likeness was used without his permission in various Internet memes, some of which were unflattering. According to the Roskomnadzor—the agency that issued the clarification—as reported by the Washington Post, it is illegal in Russia to depict a public figure in a way that is unrelated to their “personality”, whatever that should mean. As expected, American media quickly seized on this act as part of a broader effort to control dialogue on the Web, at least within the Web as seen in Russia; noncompliance with the agency’s rules can result in a website being blacklisted in all of Russia.[2]

Setting aside any immediate visceral reaction that categorizes this as censorship, we might pause to consider Roskomnadzor’s justification, which pointed to the offence to celebrities’ “honor, dignity and business.”[3] But this is not some novel argument to protect celebrities at the expense of open expression; after all, even US law, which is weaker than European regimes that acknowledge a dignitary right in privacy, protects one’s likeness and privacy to some extent in tort, for very similar reasons.[4] And even if we disagree with the application of this principle in the agency’s rule, protecting individuals’ privacy and identity is still a legitimate state interest.

The real question, I think, is not whether Russia’s rule accomplishes the right balance of priorities, between privacy/control-of-likeness and open expression. After all, the extent to which the rule can even be enforced is dubious. (It would be a waste of resources for the Russian government to go after every meme of Putin on horseback.)

The much more interesting question for us is, to what extent should geopolitical nations be able to control content on the global Web according to their own sovereign laws? Moreover, given the borderless (by default) accessibility of websites and the diverse origins of Web publishers, is it reasonable to burden companies across the world with the task and cost of complying with a patchwork of nation-by-nation rules and judicial orders lest they allow their site to go dark in Pakistan or Russia or China?

In other contexts, like inconsistent cybersecurity laws across US states, companies have found it easiest to follow the strictest set of rules, hence simplifying their task. Maybe an image host like 9gag, catering to meme-makers, would find it technically easiest to comply with these inconsistent rules by deleting content whenever any nation complains. But then free speech everywhere is constrained to the narrowest rules among jurisdictions, so this is an unacceptable outcome. What is the alternative? Does the company have to add technical complexity to its systems to block Russian visitors only from accessing a picture of Putin? Isn’t this option economically inefficient?

Looking to a historical example, even a company that wants to stand up for human rights and free speech principles might find a weighty cost of defiance. In 2010, Google withdrew from operating the mainland Chinese edition of its search engine so as to relieve itself of the burden of obeying mainland Chinese regulations.[5] Reportedly frustrated with complying with strict censorship, and probably having small market share in the shadow of China’s Baidu, Google decided to redirect all mainland Chinese visitors to its Hong Kong edition, which operates under more lax rules. The cost of doing so? Losing relevance in the Chinese market.[6]

Many other companies lacking Google’s backbone and cash would likely roll over when requested to avoid losing their audience. Does this give too much influence to countries like the United States, China, and the UK, over what citizens can see on the Web? Is the Web any better under the rules of the superpowers than under the patchwork of nation-by-nation restrictions on free speech?

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Megan Geuss, Russia’s Internet censor reminds citizens that some memes are illegal, Ars Technica (Apr. 11, 2015), http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2015/04/russias-internet-censor-reminds-citizens-that-some-memes-are-illegal/; Caitlin Dewey, Russia just made a ton of Internet memes illegal, Wash. Post Intersect Blog (Apr. 10, 2015), http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/04/10/russia-just-made-a-ton-of-internet-memes-illegal/.
2. See Caitlin Dewey, supra note 1.
3. Id.
4. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652A-E (1977).
5. Jemima Kiss, Roundup: Google pulls out of China, Guardian (Mar. 23, 2010), http://www.theguardian.com/media/pda/2010/mar/23/google-china.
6. See Kaylene Hong, Google’s steady decline in China continues, now ranked fifth with just 2% of search traffic, Next Web (Jul. 5, 2013), http://thenextweb.com/asia/2013/07/05/googles-steady-decline-in-china-continues-now-ranked-fifth-with-just-2-of-search-traffic/.

Jefferson on intellectual property

“Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society. It would be curious then, if an idea, the fugitive fermentation of an individual brain, could, of natural right, be claimed in exclusive and stable property. If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody.”

VI Writings of Thomas Jefferson, at 180—181 (Washington ed.), as quoted in Graham v. John Deere Co., 383 U.S. 1 (1966). Emphasis mine.

My experience with American health care

Right now*, I stand among several dozen patients at Health Center #3, operated by the Philadelphia city government to provide clinical care to residents in a way that is available even to those without insurance or wealth. I’ve nearly been waiting for two hours for a quick skin test.

My alternative is Student Health Service, on another edge of campus, where there is a comfortable environment, shorter waiting times, and probably better trained personnel.

Instead of taking advantage of the benefits afforded to me by my student health insurance plan, a consequence of my attendance at the University of Pennsylvania, I chose this clinic because I could get the test done on an earlier date. I imagined it wouldn’t be as great of a place as SHS, or the expansive, top-tier hospitals of Penn Medicine, but what I am experiencing has convinced me, even more so than I thought before, of the epic failures of the American health care system.

* This post has since been revised and reformatted, although it was initiated during my time in the clinic.

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A comparison

Those who are fortunate enough to have employer- or school-sponsored health insurance may have access to HMO hospitals, clinics, and doctors.

Those who attend a comprehensive university like mine may have access to the combined resources of a student health clinic and a set of university hospitals merely a block away.

Those who are in the lower strata of income and status, or whose recent unemployment leaves them uninsured, are relegated to public institutions such as these health centers, left to understaffed clinics, long wait times, and expensive, unaffordable medications. Some of these people are also caught outside the eligibility criteria of governmental programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

I’m from Canada

If timing weren’t an issue, I would just do this skin test back at home in Ontario, Canada. Sure, the skin test itself might not be covered by the provincial OHIP program, but at least every resident (after a certain number of months of residence) has access to physicians and walk in clinics at no basic charge beyond their taxes; those who are below the low-income cutoff might even pay $0 in federal and/or provincial taxes.

There is no such thing as a general practitioner who will turn you away because you “belong” to another unaffiliated insurance company. Low income citizens do not have to go to a crowded government “health center” for basic medical care; any privately-operated walk-in clinic, or a family doctor who is accepting new patients, will do. The UK also demonstrates how access to prescription medicine can be broadened.

Even those who are insured in the US are shocked when they find the cost of health care to be much higher than budgeted.

  • Students on our private university-organized insurance plan still must pay a $100 co-pay to go to the emergency room, although the co-pay is waived under restrictive conditions
  • There’s a co-pay of $35 for an X-ray diagnostic test. I had a chest X-ray done as a matter of an annual physical examination over the summer in Canada, and it was covered by OHIP.
  • Flu vaccinations are $24 (at least) in the vicinity of this university. While private health insurance may cover the cost, it’s surprising that this basic tool of public health isn’t free; municipal governments in Ontario almost universally administer them at no charge, and they are available through doctors’ offices, public health clinics, walk-in clinics, and even some pharmacies.

Even if we forget entirely about how much this sucks compared to medical care in Canada—which admittedly has its own issues—the disparities in access to, and quality of, health care between classes here in the United States should be appalling.

Dr. David Himmelstein of The Cambridge Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and his colleagues, authored a paper in the International Journal of Health Services in 2004 on the inefficiencies in the American health care system. One of the most potent conclusions is summarized in the abstract:

The United States wastes more on health care bureaucracy than it would cost to provide health care to all its uninsured … Only a single-payer national health insurance system could garner these massive administrative savings, allowing universal coverage without any increase in total health spending.

He also concludes that, in the US in 1999, “administrative spending consumed at least 31.0 percent of health spending… [i]n contrast, administrative costs in Canada… are about 16.7 percent of health spending.” I imagine some people are profiting from this spending.

Closing

I am a student, who, as a matter of circumstance (i.e. parents’ hard work) and fortune, have access to one of the top hospital systems in America. Not everyone is as fortunate. And it takes a bit of altruism to be able to stand up in a position like this and advocate on behalf of those who can’t.

Experience has shown that a weak populace is easier to rule over. One wonders if the goal of weakening the populace, especially the poor, is the reason that America continues to fail at reforming health care.