Digital rights groups worry that website blocking could cover more than illegal piracy.
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As the US dismantles net neutrality protections for the internet, a powerful group of Canadian telecom companies, cultural organizations, one labour union, and the national broadcaster are all lining up behind a proposal that would allow the government to block access to websites that illegally host pirated content within Canada.
The proposal has raised the ire of digital rights activists in Canada, who believe that such provisions constitute censorship, and could be used to block access to legitimate content.
The coalition, called FairPlay Canada, was unveiled on Monday. That day, the group also filed an application to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) asking the federal regulator to create an "Independent Piracy Review Agency" that will “consider applications identifying piracy sites” and recommend websites serving pirated content to the CRTC, which would then order internet service providers to block their customers’ access to those websites.
“We’re really worried about the idea that there’s inevitably going to be false positives and legitimate things are going to be caught up in that,” Lauren Tribe, executive director of nonprofit advocacy group OpenMedia, said over the phone. “As soon as we open the door for the government to decide what we can and can’t see online, I think we’re going to see a lot of lobby groups pushing to see their interests protected by this agency as well.”
Precise numbers on piracy in Canada are hard to come by, but according to CRTC data cited in The Globe and Mail, cable, IPTV, and satellite subscriptions declined by 400,000 between 2012 and 2016. As for what that’s meant for profits, the CRTC reported that broadcasting sector revenues dropped .14 percent in the same time period. FairPlay Canada cites a 2017 report from anti-piracy company MUSO that claims piracy websites received 1.88 billion visits from Canadians in 2016.
The FairPlay Canada coalition and its application come at a crucial time for net neutrality—the principle that information on the internet should flow freely and without interference from service providers. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently voted to repeal Obama-era net neutrality protections. Weeks before the vote, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that he would “defend net neutrality.”
In September, telecom giant Bell, now a member of FairPlay Canada, proposed website blocking at NAFTA negotiations. Other members of the coalition include the CBC (Canada’s national broadcaster), Rogers (one of the “big three” telecom companies, which also owns numerous media properties), labour union Unifor, and the Toronto International Film Festival, among other companies and organizations.
“For us it's a question of principle,” Douglas Chow, a CBC spokesperson, wrote me in an email. “We support efforts, like FairPlay Canada, to stop piracy of copyrighted content. Groups who steal and re-sell content without permission are breaking the law and undermining financial support for culture.”
FairPlay Canada’s application resembles provisions in the US Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), proposed legislation that would have allowed internet service providers to block access to websites providing pirated content. The Act was ultimately abandoned by lawmakers in 2012 after pressure from digital rights groups and the public, but the industry continues to push for SOPA-like provisions in various forms.
When asked if the CBC’s membership in FairPlay Canada would require disclosure in future news stories around website blocking, Chow replied, “A CBC/Radio-Canada journalist independently reports on any organization, including us.”
The pressure on federal regulators now is immense as it must now review FairPlay Canada’s application. Indeed, most of Canada’s most important telecommunications and media organizations are now pushing a government-administered website blocking scheme. The internet in Canada is at a crossroads.
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