Telecom companies want the CRTC to block piracy sites (as they define them)

If telecom companies in Canada have their way, it’s possible net neutrality will be limited in the Great White North much like in the United States.

The belief was that, thanks to a few pieces of regulation, things in Canada were more solid and better protected than in the US. There’s a push to codify net neutrality into a single piece of law to make sure it’s clear and concise and all in one place, but that was it.

Not anymore.

Outlets are reporting that the three biggest telecom companies in Canada – Bell, Rogers and Cineplex —along with some smaller ones are working together to make it possible to limit access to websites under the name of protecting against internet piracy.

Canadaland reported last month that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has received a draft proposal to develop a new corporation, the Internet Piracy Review Agency (IPRA), described as a “not-for-profit corporation that would maintain a list of websites it had determined were peddling pirated materials and force all internet service providers in the country to block access to them.”

On the surface, sure, protecting against internet piracy sounds like a decent, harmless idea. People should be paid for their work and no one should steal work or take credit for someone else’s ideas and creativity. Who doesn’t support that idea?

But think about it for a moment: The US has been struggling to get its arms around digital piracy for at least a decade now with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), revising and rewriting and tweaking over and over again what constitutes piracy and fair use and trying to figure out when something is a derivative work or is outright stealing from someone else. Thanks to the “dancing baby” lawsuit – still kicking around, by the way – the owner of a copyright now has to back up claims that a work posted online, especially YouTube, intentionally included copyrighted material in a video without getting the owner’s permission first.

(For what it’s worth, some artists are peeved at YouTube as well for the company’s practices and, at least in the US, some ISPs are facing lawsuits from record labels for their users accessing and sharing pirated material. But, again, issues for other days.)

The DMCA is a mess. It’s intentionally messy because the regulations are going to be rewritten and patched up with so much tape and staples that it’ll eventually have to be overhauled, which everyone kind of wants.


So this new corporation under the CRTC would keep a list of websites trafficking in pirated material. Bye YouTube.  And that’s just the start.

The draft proposal is backed by Bell, Rogers, Cineplex and Cinemas Guzzo, a chain of movie theaters in Quebec. The final proposal was expected to be filed in late December, so it’s possible more names have been added.

Canadaland cites emails received by telecom companies as saying “the coalition doesn’t want to get U.S. studios and broadcasters as official applicants to the CRTC; instead, the American media conglomerates would join the application after the process gets rolling.”

Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, told Canadaland the draft proposal is “enormously problematic” and legally questionable.

“This is a dramatic shift. This is a prospect of significant internet regulation being done by the CRTC and without any court oversight,” he said. “The only court oversight (would come) after a site has been blocked… If you make the argument that you’re in a position to block for these purposes, it seems pretty obvious that we’re going to see other groups say that you ought to be blocking for other purposes.”

The proposal points to areas in which a similar approach has been successful, but there was a court process to establish those regulations, the article notes. And anyone who’s ever used an IP address spoofer to access geoblocked content knows how easy it is to do that.

Bell started talking about something like this over the summer, testifying at the CRTC about people cutting cords to watch programming for free. It’s a trend that’s growing each year – more people are leaving behind expensive cable and satellite TV service with dozens of channels they’re not interested in for streamlined streaming services via Roku, Chromecast, Fire and other devices.

Rob Malcolmson, a senior vice president of regulatory affairs for Bell, said in September that audiences are interested in free content at the expense of legal enterprises. He claimed Canadians visited websites offering pirated material 1.88 billion times in 2016, the CBC reported.

OpenMedia internet freedom activist Marie Aspiazu told the CBC the vision offered by Bell over the summer is “radical and it’s overreaching. They’re going to start blocking any other sites that they don’t see fit.”

There’s a provincial law in Quebec that contains some of this same concept, forcing ISPs to block users’ access to online casinos not expressly approved by the government. But, in a twist, the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association is challenging that legislation in Quebec courts. (Bell is a member of that group yet is working with Quebec cinemas on the proposed CRTC changes.)

The crux of the issue here is whether there would be a legal process, or any kind of court oversight, to determine what is piracy and which sites are the worst offenders. Take the courts out of it and there would be nothing stopping the telecom companies, in theory, from literally blacklisting and blocking not just streaming sites but anything they found to be offensive. It’s not just YouTube in danger here, it’s Spotify and iTunes and any other site where creative content is disseminated.

Author’s note: I was not able to immediately find a copy of the proposed regulation; another article will be written with details when available. 

Amber Healy

I write about music policy and lawsuits because they're endlessly fascinating.

Amber Healy has 517 posts and counting. See all posts by Amber Healy

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