Canadians take a stand against Bell Canada’s dangerous website blocking proposal

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 |  | Mar 6, 2018

Last week, Canadians pushed back against the so-called FairPlay Canada campaign, the latest manifestation of Canadian Internet service providers’ ongoing attack on digital rights and net neutrality in Canada. The campaign, led by Bell Canada, proposes the creation of a website-blocking system. If allowed to succeed, the campaign would create the so-called “Internet Piracy Review Agency” (IPRA), a dictatorship-style Internet policing agency that would facilitate the blocking of Canadians’ access to the websites the ISPs dislike.

In December, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to dismantle net neutrality. The FCC’s 3-2 vote, which defied 83 percent of American voters who supported preserving the FCC’s net neutrality rules, threatens democracy and the free exchange of ideas and information via the Internet. Net neutrality is the principle that ISPs and governments have no right to control what we see and do online.

Here in Canada, Bell Media and its FairPlay Canada coalition partners have been plotting against net neutrality for months now.  The coalition recently filed its dangerous attack plan with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada’s federal telecoms regulator. It’s all being done in the name of fighting piracy websites.

The whole IPRA thing started taking shape back in September when Bell Canada’s senior VP of regulatory affairs, Rob Malcolmson, testified before the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade’s debate on NAFTA. Bell, one of Canada’s “big three” telecom companies, unashamedly proposed co-opting the federal government into its war on net neutrality. Malcolmson urged the federal government to create new website blocking agency. He told the committee:

Our view on how we solve the piracy problem is not 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’s the only way to stop it. You would mandate all ISPs across the country to essentially block access to a blacklist of egregious piracy sites. That would be job number one.

Malcomson explained how Bell’s plan for what’s now the proposed IPRA:

In our view it would be an independent agency that would be charged with that task. You certainly wouldn’t want the ISPs acting as censors as to what content is pirate content. But, surely, an independent third party agency could be formed, could create a black list of pirate sites and then the ISPs would be required to block it. That’s at a high level how we would see it unfolding, perhaps overseen by a regulator like the CRTC.

Then it was all Bell’s very bad idea. Rogers, also one of Canada’s big three telecom companies, seemed uninterested in the idea of a Canadian website blocking agency. Not any more.

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

Bell’s seemingly humble anti-piracy idea has now morphed into a dangerous anti-net neutrality proposal supported by a coalition involving other ISPs and Hollywood companies. As Canadaland reported in December:

Bell is leading a coalition of companies that intends to push the telecom regulator to create 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… The coalition includes broadcasters, movie studios, and cinema operators from across Canada. After Bell, some of the biggest names include Rogers, Cineplex, and Quebec theatre chain Cinémas Guzzo.

Even Shaw Communications has joined the anti-piracy piracy bandwagon. In a recent submission to the CRTC, the company posited:

Streaming piracy must be targeted through a comprehensive and coordinated response. This may include a legislative framework that not only allows rights holders to seek permanent injunctions against online piracy services, but one that also requires internet service providers (ISPs) to permanently block access to the illegal service at issue…

But one cannot help noticing in FairPlay Canada’s proposed IPRA a spirited effort to co-opt the CRTC and Canadian law, which have consistently prioritized our Charter rights and net neutrality by, for example, rejecting mandated content blocking. The proposed Internet policing agency would scour the Internet and compile a list of offending websites. It would then submit its “hit list” the the CRTC. Using sections 24 and 24.1 of the Telecommunications Act, the CRTC would order all ISPs to block Canadians’ access to the blacklisted sites.

If you think that’s bad Internet traffic management, consider the fact that, already, there’s a painful lack of competition in the Canadian broadband market. The IPRA idea is about throttling, blocking and discriminatory slow lanes against against your favourite website. It’s an attack on the Internet.

The IPRA plan also provides the incentive for widespread Internet surveillance. It’d likely jeopardize Canadians’ privacy rights by weakening the use of virtual private networks.

In a recent blog post, Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, wondered why Canadian telecom and cable giants think we need a draconian government-approved system policing the Internet. Under the Copyright Act, rights holders can sue for copyright infringement. According to Geist:

Canada already has some of the toughest anti-piracy laws in the world with unique “enabler” provision that makes it easy for rights holder to target Canadian-based sites that are perceived to facilitate piracy. Moreover, industry data suggests that Canada has lower rates of piracy than many other countries. For example, Music Canada recently reported that Canada is well below global averages in downloading music from unauthorized sites or stream ripping from sites such as YouTube.

In the past few weeks, Geist has published a whole series of must-read articles on “The Case Against the Bell Coalition’s Website Blocking Plan”. Below are a few of my favourite pieces:

Here’s a bit of good news:

First, the CRTC is unlikely to allow itself to be co-opted into Bell’s anti-net neutrality crusade. Back in April 2017, the federal telecom regulator ruled in favour of net neutrality. It declared that “Internet service providers should treat data traffic equally to foster consumer choice, innovation and the free exchange of ideas.”

Second, Trudeau’s Liberal government genuinely digs net neutrality. The Liberals’ 2017 federal budget recognized the benefits of “an open and innovative Internet”.  Heritage Minister Melanie Joly has assured us that the government “will continue to champion the Internet as a progressive force and an open space without barriers. As a government, we stand by the principle of net neutrality.”

Net neutrality is still situated at the core of Canadian cultural policy. The other day, Navdeep Bains, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, tweeted:

After the FCC’s decision, Bains tweeted:

The following Question Period exchange in the House of Commons, suggests that the Liberals’ strong support for net neutrality is something to be taken seriously:

Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux:

Mr. Speaker, Bell and several other media conglomerates have announced a proposal to create a mandatory blocking system for websites that they have arbitrarily determined are inappropriate. However, the blocking process would take place with little to no oversight by our courts. This plan has Internet and net-neutrality experts concerned. Will the government let these multi-billion dollar companies control Canadians’ Internet access?

Liberal MP David Lametti, who is also Bains’ parliamentary secretary:

Mr. Speaker, as our minister has made very clear, we support the principle of net neutrality, where Canadians have access to the content of their choice in accordance with Canadian laws. I can assure my hon. colleague and friend that net neutrality is the critical issue of our times, much like freedom of the press and freedom of expression that came before it. That is why our government will continue to support a strong net-neutrality framework through the CRTC.

Third, the Feb. 28 Day of Action against the Bell-led censorship initiative, facilitated by OpenMedia, makes it clear that Team Internet Canada is unlikely to give up a free and competitive Internet without a fight.

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 ProgressiveZimbabwean Progressive, and Charity Files. Follow him on Twitter: @Obiemad