The Globe and Mail ran a masthead editorial yesterday that did not mince words with respect to Bell’s recent proposal calling on the Canadian government to support radical copyright reforms in NAFTA such as North America-wide mandatory website blocking and the full criminalization of copyright. Under the title, A Bad Idea for ‘Fixing’ Canada’s Internet Rules, the Globe argued that Bell’s plan “adds up to a frontal attack on online freedom.” Bell has earned the criticism, but it should also be noted that underlying its request were dubious claims about the state of Canadian piracy. Indeed, as Bell shifts its copyright position to mirror those promoted by the MPAA and RIAA, it seems ready to emulate age-old, discredited tactics that inaccurately seek to paint Canada as a piracy haven.
At the hearing, a senior Bell executive stated:
U.S. interests have long complained that widespread online copyright infringement here in Canada is limiting the growth of the digital economy. In fact, many of the most prominent global players in the piracy ecosystem operate out of Canada as a relative safe harbour. Canadians made 1.88 billion visits to piracy sites last year.
There are at least three issues with this paragraph. First, Bell claims that U.S. lobby groups have long complained about Canadian copyright law. That may be true, but those same groups lodge the same complaints about just about every country in the world. Indeed, the Canadian government has rightly rejected the complaints – usually found in the annual Special 301 piracy watch list – for years. Recent internal government documents stated:
Canada does not recognize the validity of the Special 301 and considers the process and the Report to be flawed. The Report fails to employ a clear methodology and the findings tend to rely on industry allegations rather than empirical evidence and objective analysis.
The same might be said of Bell’s claims that Canadians made 1.88 billion visit to “piracy sites” last year. The source of this figure is not entirely clear. A Google search reveals one possibility: a CATA Alliance reference last year to Google removing 1.88 billion URLs. If that is the source, Bell’s claim is misleading for several reasons. First, it is a reference to Google URL removals, not site visits. Second, the data is not limited to Canada. Third, earlier this year Google revealed that the overwhelming majority of search takedown requests are fraudulent with data suggesting that 99.95% of Google takedown requests in a single month involved URLs that never actually appeared in the search index.
If this involves a different source, there is plenty of data to indicate that piracy is declining in Canada. For example, CEG-TEK, one of the most prolific (mis)users of the notice-and-notice system reported in 2015 that there were “massive changes” in the Canadian market after the new copyright legal rules were established. In fact, it noted that the biggest decrease in piracy occurred on Bell’s network. Those findings are consistent with other reports that indicate that piracy has declined in Canada as more legal alternatives have entered the market. Moreover, SOCAN, Canada’s largest music copyright collective, this year reported a 460 per cent increase in earnings from Internet music streaming services.
As for claims that Canada is a safe haven for piracy, the reality is precisely the opposite – as Bell surely knows. Canada is home to some of the toughest anti-piracy laws in the world, which Bell has actively used in recent years. This includes lawsuits against set-top box distributors, mod-chip sellers, and websites such as TVAddons. Further, Canadian copyright law has also been used to shut down websites whose primary purpose is to enable infringement with rights holders relying on a first-of-its-kind “enabler provision” contained in the 2012 copyright reforms. The provision appears to have worked as the U.S. government’s most recent report on notorious online markets makes no reference to Canada. Moreover, the Business Software Alliance reports that Canada is at its lowest software piracy rate ever, well below global and European averages.
Bell’s apparent decision to abandon longstanding positions of copyright neutrality befitting a telecom company is discouraging. But even more problematic is its effort to convince the Canadian government to use trade negotiations to advance website blocking and copyright criminalization, while using inaccurate or misleading claims to make its case.