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Michael Geist's Blog

Why the U.S. Government Isn't Really Relinquishing its Power over Internet Governance

Earlier this month, the U.S. government surprised the Internet community by announcing that it plans to back away from its longstanding oversight of the Internet domain name system. The move comes more than 15 years after it first announced plans to transfer management of the so-called IANA function, which includes the power to add new domain name extensions (such as dot-xxx) and to alter administrative control over an existing domain name extension (for example, approving the transfer of the dot-ca domain in 2000 from the University of British Columbia to the Canadian Internet Registration Authority).

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes the change is rightly viewed as a major development in the ongoing battle over Internet governance. Yet a closer look at the why the U.S. is embarking on the change and what the system might look like once the transition is complete, suggests that it is not relinquishing much power anytime soon. Rather, the U.S. has ensured that it will dictate the terms of any transfer and retain a "super-jurisdiction" for the foreseeable future.



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The Web We Want: Could Canada Lead on a Digital Bill of Rights?

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the drafting of Tim Berners-Lee's proposal to combine hypertext with the Internet that would later become the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee used the occasion to call for the creation of a global online "Magna Carta" to protect the rights of Internet users around the world.

The desire for enforceable global digital rights stands in sharp contrast to the early days of the Web when advocates were more inclined to tell governments to stay away from the burgeoning medium. For example, John Perry Barlow's widely circulated 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, asked governments to "leave us alone", claiming that conventional legal concepts did not apply online.

While the notion of a separate "cyberspace" would today strike many as inconsistent with how the Internet has developed into an integral part of everyday life, the prospect of a law-free online environment without government is even more at-odds with current realities. Rather than opposing government, there is a growing recognition of the need for governments to ensure that fundamental digital rights are respected.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that building on Berners-Lee's vision of global online protections, the World Wide Web Foundation, supported by leading non-governmental organizations from around the world, has launched a "Web We Want" campaign that aims to foster increased awareness of online digital rights. The campaign focuses on five principles: affordable access, the protection of personal user information, freedom of expression, open infrastructure, and neutral networks that do not discriminate against content or users.


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Why Are Canadian Wireless Carriers Increasing Prices? Because They Can

Yesterday, I was contacted by a Toronto radio station wanting to discuss wireless pricing increases  that have occurred over the past few months (including increases over the weekend at both Rogers and Bell). Their key question was what lay behind the increased prices?  While some might point to reduced roaming revenues or costs associated with the spectrum auction, I believe the answer is far simpler.

The carriers increased prices because they can.

Indeed, this is precisely what the Competition Bureau of Canada concluded could and would happen in its analysis of the wireless environment in Canada.  In its  January 29, 2014 submission to the CRTC, it stated:


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Canadian Authors & Publishers: We Demand Education Talk To Us As Long As It Leads to New Payments

The Canadian Copyright Institute, an association of authors and publishers, has released a new paper that calls on the Canadian education community to stop relying on its current interpretation of fair dealing and instead negotiate a collective licence with Access Copyright. The paper was apparently published in the fall but is being released publicly now since Canadian education groups have refused to cave to Access Copyright's demands.

The CCI document, which raises some of the same themes found in an Association of Canadian Publisher's paper that distorts Canadian copyright law (thoroughly debunked by Howard Knopf), features at least three notable takeaways: the shift to threats of government lobbying, long overdue admissions that the value of the Access Copyright licence has declined, and emphasis on arguments that have been rejected by the courts and government. There are also three notable omissions: the fact that the overwhelming majority of copying in schools is conducted with publisher permission, the role of technological neutrality, and the relevance of other copyright exceptions. By the end of the document, the CCI and Access Copyright work to fabricate a new fair dealing test that is inconsistent with Supreme Court of Canada rulings as they call for dialogue so long as it leads to a new collective licence.


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If U.S. Cloud Computing Isn't Good Enough for the Canadian Government, Why Should It Be for You?

In August 2011, the federal government announced plans to consolidate more than 100 different email systems used by over 300,000 employees into a single, outsourced email system. While the email transition is currently underway - Bell won the nearly $400 million contract last year - the decision quietly sparked a trade fight with the United States that placed the spotlight on the risks associated with hosting computer data outside the country.

At the heart of the dispute is the emergence of cloud computing services such as web-based email, online document storage, and photo sharing sites. These services are based on a computing infrastructure that relies on huge computer server farms and high-speed network connections that allow users to access their content from any device connected to the Internet.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that cloud computing services offer the promise of convenience and cost savings, but at a price of reduced control over your own content, reliance on third-party providers, and potential privacy risks should the data "hosted in the cloud" be disclosed to law enforcement agencies without appropriate disclosure or oversight.


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Canada - South Korea Trade Agreement Demonstrates Deals Possible Without Increasing IP Protections

Canada and South Korea announced agreement on a comprehensive trade agreement earlier today. The focus is understandably on tariff issues, but the agreement also contains a full chapter on intellectual property (note that the governments have only released summaries of the agreement, not the full text, which is still being drafted). The IP chapter is significant for what it does not include. Unlike many other trade deals - particularly those involving the U.S., European Union, and Australia - the Canada-South Korea deal is content to leave domestic intellectual property rules largely untouched. The approach is to reaffirm the importance of intellectual property and ensure that both countries meet their international obligations, but not to use trade agreements as a backdoor mechanism to increase IP protections.

Yesterday I noted that Canada might be asked to increase the term of copyright protection given that South Korea had agreed to longer copyright terms in its recent agreements with the European Union, Australia, and the U.S. In fact, the U.S. agreement contains extensive additional side letters on Internet provider liability, enforcement, and online piracy.  The Canada - South Korea deal rejects that approach with copyright, trademark, patent, and enforcement rules that are all consistent with current Canadian law (plus the coming border measures provisions in Bill C-8). 


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Will the Canada - South Korea Trade Agreement Include Copyright Term Extension?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is currently in South Korea reportedly to finalize agreement on the Canada - South Korea trade agreement. The proposed deal has been the subject of a decade of negotiation with opposition from the auto industry resulting in significant delays. While the focal point of the agreement will be on tariff issues involving the automotive and agricultural sectors, the deal will include an intellectual property chapter. The IP issues have not received any attention (the entire agreement remains secret so discussion has been generally limited), but it is possible that it will require Canada to extend the term of copyright.

An initial Canadian environmental assessment of the agreement suggested that the IP chapter would simply reaffirm existing IP obligations. If the agreement is limited to reaffirming existing commitments, copyright term will not be touched since Canada meets the international requirement of life of the author plus 50 years.  However, South Korea's recent trade deals with both the European Union and Australia feature a minimum copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years (the Australian deal also includes a requirement for "measures to curtail repeated copyright infringement on the Internet"). Whether the Canadian deal contains a similar provision will be worth monitoring, both for the impact on Canadian copyright law and for the international trade implications such as the Trans Pacific Partnership that is currently under negotiation.
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Industry Canada Says "Modernizing Privacy Regime" Planned for 2014-15

Industry Canada's Report on Plans and Priorities for 2014-15 includes a notable paragraph on priorities for the digital economy.  The report states:

In 2014–15, Industry Canada will deliver the telecommunications consumer commitments included in the 2013 Speech from the Throne. These include taking legislative action to amend the Telecommunications Act to reduce roaming costs and prevent wireless providers from charging other companies more than they charge their own customers for mobile services. The Department will also protect consumer interests by encouraging compliance and adopting more effective remedies, including administrative monetary penalties, when violations occur. Industry Canada will continue to promote investment in high-speed broadband networks for rural Canadians.

These priorities are an important part of a robust digital economy. Other elements will include: modernizing the privacy regime to better protect consumer privacy online; monitoring the implementation of Canada's anti-spam legislation; and deepening analysis of Canada's communications infrastructure.

While the telecom actions were expected, the commitment to modernizing Canadian privacy laws is new (albeit long overdue).  Previous privacy reform bills died on last year, leaving the government years behind in addressing PIPEDA reform. The Industry Canada report suggests that some legislative action may finally be on the way.
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Moving Targets: CRTC Sets Universal Broadband Access Target By Year End But Govt Plan Is For 2019

The federal government released its Report on Plans and Priorities for 2014-15 today with departments and agencies identifying spending estimates and work priorities. The CRTC's report offers some interesting insights into its main activities and targets, particularly with respect to broadband access.

The latest CRTC broadband target is for 100% of Canadian households to have access to broadband speeds of 5 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload by December 31, 2014. That target is a year ahead of schedule as last year's report set the 100% target for the end of 2015. The new target is also difficult to reconcile with the government's announcement that it plans to spend $305 million over the next five years to extend broadband to rural and remote areas. In fact, last week reports suggested that Industry Minister James Moore and the government had established a target of 2019 for universal access to broadband. If the CRTC target is achieved, the government's broadband plans and targets would appear already outdated. Interestingly, Industry Canada's report includes a target of 77% of the population with broadband subscriptions (not access) by March 2015, but broadband is defined is only 1.5 Mbps or higher.


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The CRTC's Future of Television Consultation: The Missing Provocative Questions

Last month, I blogged about the CRTC's Talk TV consultation and concerns that the questions were framed in a lopsided manner.  CRTC Chair Jean Pierre Blais was asked about those concerns in Twitter chat and he responded that the questions and answers "were intended to be provocative." I address that response in my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) highlighting both the concerns with the survey and offering some additional provocative questions that the Commission excluded.

The column begins by noting that regulation of Internet video services and the prospect of pick-and-pay television channels headline the second phase of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission's future of television consultation which launched late last month. The "TalkTV" initiative is designed to make it easy for Canadians to participate, featuring six short scenarios followed by a limited number of choices for respondents.


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