Bell, Rogers, CBC push for new anti-piracy agency despite public concerns

Woman using smartphone under a sky full of stars. Fairplay Canada, a coalition of artists, content creators, unions and guilds, aims to stop pirates stealing work on Canada’s corner of the web. (Getty Images)

A new coalition of content producing organizations has filed an application requesting that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada’s public broadcast and telecommunications regulator, help fight against online piracy by creating a website-blocking system.

The group, called Fairplay Canada, which includes the likes of Bell, Rogers, and even the CBC, filed an application asking the CRTC to create an anti-piracy website blocking system yesterday. In its press release, Fairplay Canada, which bills itself as a coalition of Canadian artists, content creators, unions, guilds, etc. is pushing for the tool to help protect “the jobs of hundreds of thousands of Canadians who work in the creative sector are at risk as a result of increasing online piracy.”

Fairplay Canada says it wants an Independent Piracy Review Agency (IPRA) to take down sites engaged in online piracy. Under the application proposed, IPRA would make a recommendation to block or not block the site to the CRTC, with oversight and appeals dealt with by the Federal Court of Appeals. Oversight of any blocked sites, which can only occur in “exceptional circumstances,” currently rests with the CRTC.

But the creation of a banned website list, the idea at the core of the proposal, troubles open internet advocates. “This proposal would get rid of one of the key things about net neutrality, which is no blocking and no censorship,” says Katy Anderson, a digital rights specialist at Open Media, an open internet advocacy organization. “And in terms of judicial oversight, it’s a bit murky.” 

Freedom of expression at risk?

The lack of oversight is just one of the many problems privacy and open internet advocates have with the proposal. “One of the dangers of creating these kinds of programs is that it really opens the door to incredible abuses and misuses down the road as the definition of what might be blocked steadily expands,” says Michael Geist, a professor the University of Ottawa and expert on the Canadian telecom industry.

Nevertheless, Geist believes that even if Fairplay Canada’s proposal were to somehow become law, the legal battle would torpedo its longevity.

“This has huge implications for freedom of expression and creating mandated blocking across all ISPs will have a real impact on freedom of expression online,” he says.

According to polling cited by Fairplay, Canada saw 1.88 billion visits to piracy sites in 2016 and ranks 8th in the world in piracy visits. Web streaming was the most popular form of piracy, with 85 per cent of piracy visits landing on streaming sites, one of the highest rates in the world. However, the report also says that Canada’s “internet population is less engaged with piracy than its piracy rank by visits would indicate.”

Furthermore, torrenting dropped by more than 25 per cent compared to the year before, and it represents less than 12 per cent of piracy in the country. And the increased popularity of streaming services in Canada like Netflix, Google Play, Apple Music and Spotify shows that the public is willing to pay a fair price for content. Netflix currently has 5.2 million subscribers in Canada. Polling in Toronto showed that Spotify was more popular than all but five of the city’s terrestrial radio stations.

You pay a small monthly fee and it takes away the need to pirate because they make it so easy and they make the price fair,” says Anderson. That’s how you stop piracy in Canada.”

And Canadian content doesn’t travel far beyond its borders, unlike the global reach of American entertainment. “Whether that be CTV’s Your Morning or CBC’s Kim Convenience, these aren’t the things we’re seeing be pirated,” says Anderson. “Instead you see HBO’s Game of Thrones is what’s being pirated.”

‘Huge burden’ on taxpayers

Other problems abound in the proposal. According to Fairplay Canada’s application, IPRA, the proposed anti-piracy agency, “would not require significant resources, [and] would become self-funding through a reasonable application fee charged to applicants that seek to have a site designated as a piracy site.” Essentially, the content provider would pay a fee to have their site takedown reviewed.

But what those fees would be in order to make IPRA self-sufficient remains unknown. And the timeline for the process could take upwards of a month, if not longer. The process could quickly run into a backlog, particularly if defendants decide to use the 15-day response period they would be entitled to under the application.

If the anti-piracy agency was created, it would require a substantial number of people to vet websites flagged for piracy, and given the CRTC is a public entity, it would have to be funded by taxpayer dollars.

It’s going to be a huge burden and so they’re calling on the CRTC to create a separate body,” says Anderson, “but it’s going to cost a lot of money to arm that body with the right tools to be able to look at all these websites fairly and determine what’s pirated content and what isn’t.”

The federal government has already issued a response to the proposal.

“We understand that there are groups, including Bell, calling for additional tools to better fight piracy, particularly in the digital domain. Canada’s copyright system has numerous legal provisions and tools to help copyright owners protect their intellectual property, both online and in the physical realm,” said Navdeep Bains, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, to MobileSyrup, a site that covers mobile technology in Canada.

“We are committed to maintaining one of the best intellectual property and copyright frameworks in the world to support creativity and innovation to the benefit of artists, creators, consumers and all Canadians.”