Escalating war on net neutrality, Bell Canada wants to block Canadians’ access to pirate websites

Bell Media building on 87 George Street in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Photo credit: Obert Madondo / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By Obert Madondo |  | Sep 29, 2017

Back in April, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) got a bucketful of kudos for ruling in favour of net neutrality. The federal telecom regulator declared that “Internet service providers should treat data traffic equally to foster consumer choice, innovation and the free exchange of ideas.”

Bell Media, one of Canada’s “big three” telecom companies, wants to change all that. The telecom giant is especially vexed because Canada is a safe haven for pirate websites. It wants the federal government to swing into action and create an environment that would allow Internet service providers (ISPs) block Canadians’ access to these sites.

The telecom giant tried to sneak its proposal for dictatorial digital powers, stringent copyright protections and stiffer penalties for violations through the ongoing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations. Rob Malcolmson, the company’s senior VP of regulatory affairs, recently addressed a government hearing on the negotiations here in Ottawa. On Wednesday, CBC News reported:

“According to Malcolmson, this is how the website-blocking plan would work: an independent agency, such as Canada’s broadcast regulator (the CRTC), would create a blacklist of sites that allow people to download or stream pirated content like movies and TV shows.

“Internet service providers, like Bell, would then be required to prevent their customers from accessing the sites.”

During the presentation, Bell made no secret it’s vexed by the fact that Canadians visited pirates websites 1.88 billion times in 2016. Bell’s solution is to block access to these sites:

Our view on how we solve the piracy problem is it is not sort of coming up with new technological measures, it’s blocking access to piracy. How do you do that? We would like to see measures put in place whereby all Internet service providers are required to block consumer access to pirated websites. In our view, that is the only way to stop it. So you would mandate all ISPs across the country to essentially block access to a black list of egregious piracy sites. That would be job number one.

Basically, Bell is trying to co-opt the federal government into its war on net neutrality – the principle that ISPs and governments have no right to control what we see and do online. They should treat all internet data equally. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that pushes for government transparency and digital rights, without net neutrality, powerful ISPs like Bell “can block your favorite content, throttle or slow down Internet speeds to disadvantage competitors’ content, or make you pay more than you already do to access movies and other online entertainment.”

According to Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa:

Bell would like the CRTC to police allegations of copyright infringement by overseeing a new website blocking agency charged with creating a block list. Incredibly, Bell’s proposal involves no court oversight, hoping to create a mandatory system for blocking websites that excludes the due process that comes from judicial review (raising obvious Charter of Rights and Freedoms concerns). Notably, Bell does not discuss that Canada already has a provision in the Copyright Act that allows rights holders to target websites that enable infringement.

Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net 2016” report found that “Internet freedom around the world declined in 2016 for the sixth consecutive year.” Canada’s status is “Free”. If Bell’s plan goes through, all that will change. Your favourite Canadian ISP would target not only pirates websites. They’d block your access to any site they don’t like. They’d also likely be empowered to bully sites into paying huge sums of money to escape the dreaded Internet “slow lane.” I smell a sort of digital authoritarianism.

And yet, considering the fact that Canada’s “big three” tech companies are usually on the same page in their pursuit of profit, you can’t help applauding the big wrinkle in Bell’s plan. Geist draws our attention Rogers’ position, which he says strikes a reasonable balance:

The 2012 Copyright Modernization Act was carefully developed by Parliament over many years and is designed to serve the interests of all Canadians in its balance between rights holders and uses of copyrighted works. We are concerned that a trade renegotiation, where copyright issues are used as bargaining chips, could endanger this delicate balance. In our view, any changes to our domestic copyright laws should be made through the upcoming five-year review of the Copyright Modernization Act, not through the NAFTA renegotiation.

Basically, Bell is alone in it’s strange insurgency against net neutrality.

Canada has come a long way since in 2005, when the wireless and Internet service provider Telus blocked its subscribers’ access to Voices for Change, a site that was being used by members of the Telecommunications Workers Union to fight for their rights. We currently have a government that genuinely digs net neutrality. The 2017 federal budget recognizes the benefits of “an open and innovative Internet”. Still, complacency is dangerous. The message all Canadian internet freedom fighters should be sending to Bell Canada is this: Net neutrality is the first amendment of the open internet.

Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based blogger, activist, photographer, digital rights enthusiast, former political aide, and former international development administrator. He’s the founder and editor of these blogs: The Canadian ProgressiveThe Zimbabwean Progressive, and Charity Files. Follow him on Twitter: @Obiemad