Last year, the Quebec government introduced legislation that would require Internet service providers to block access to unlicensed online gambling sites. It provides that “an Internet service provider may not give access to an online gambling site whose operation is not authorized under Québec law.” The Quebec bill, which is currently before the provincial legislature, is a terrible idea that has been opposed by ISPs and consumer groups. The government views this initiative as a revenue enhancing measure because it wants to direct gamblers to its own Espacejeux, the Loto-Québec run online gaming site. The mandated blocking legislation is unprecedented in Canada and if enacted, it will surely be subject to legal challenge, including the possibility of a constitutional challenge.
The legal challenge may not be limited to constitutional issues, however. The Quebec bill may also be blocked by the TPP, which may be a good outcome, but raises the question of whether a trade agreement is the right way to dictate provincial laws.
How might the TPP apply to provincial online gambling regulation?
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If there is a first rule of the Internet in Canada, it is “thou shall not block.” Canadian Internet service providers face a wide range of policies that have implications for accessing content including net neutrality rules and the copyright notice-and-notice system. Yet in virtually all cases, blocking or removing content is simply not done (the lone exception is a limited, private sector led initiative to block child pornography images).
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that unlike other countries which have dabbled in mandated takedowns or Internet filtering, Canada has largely defended an “open Internet”. Canadian law does not mandate that Internet providers take down content due to unproven allegations of copyright infringement or allow them to alter or change content. In fact, the Telecommunications Act stipulates that “a Canadian carrier shall not control the content or influence the meaning or purpose of telecommunications carried by it for the public.”
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The Government of Quebec has introduced new legislation that requires Internet service providers to block access to unlicensed online gambling sites. The provisions are contained in an omnibus bill implementing elements of the government’s spring budget, which included a promise to establish website blocking requirements. The bill provides that “an Internet service provider may not give access to an online gambling site whose operation is not authorized under Québec law.” The government’s lottery commission will establish the list of banned websites:
“The Société des loteries du Québec shall oversee the accessibility of online gambling. It shall draw up a list of unauthorized online gambling sites and provide the list to the Régie des alcools, des courses et des jeux, which shall send it to Internet service providers by registered mail.“
According to the law:
“An Internet service provider that receives the list of unauthorized online gambling sites in accordance with section 260.35 shall, within 30 days after receiving the list, block access to those sites.“
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The Government of Quebec released its budget yesterday featuring two Internet-related measures that are sure to attract attention and possible litigation. First, it is moving forward with plans to study a new tax on residential Internet services in order to provide support for the cultural sector. The study was recommended by the Quebec Taxation Review Committee, which is looking for new sources of revenue to support the movie, music, and book publishing industries. There are no further details on how much an ISP tax would be, though the plan would increase Internet access costs at the very time that governments are concerned with improving affordability.
Second, the government says it will be introducing a new law requiring ISPs to block access to online gambling sites. The list of blocked sites will be developed by Loto-Quebec, a government agency. The budget states:
A legislative amendment will be proposed to introduce an illegal website filtering measure. In accordance with this measure, Internet service providers will not be allowed to provide access to an online gaming and gambling website whose name is on a list of websites that are to be blocked, drawn up by Loto-Québec. This measure will be applied by the Régie des alcools, des courses et des jeux, which should have the necessary resources to fulfil its new responsibilities.
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The Province of Ontario has passed new consumer protection legislation that contains provisions prohibiting the advertising of Internet gambling sites. The provisions underwent important changes at committee (first reading, second reading after committee), however, so that the final bill looks somewhat different from the one that was introduced in the fall. When first introduced, the bill contained a blanket prohibition on advertising an "an Internet site that operates an internet gaming business contrary to the Criminal Code." The bill defined advertising as:
(a) the promotion by print, publication, broadcast, telecommunication or distribution by any means, of information intended to promote the use of an internet gaming business,
(b) self-promotion and a contract under which one person obtains the services of another to develop or distribute the advertisement,
(c) a link in a website intended to promote the use of an internet gaming business.
After committee, the bill contained some important changes.
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