The Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics has released its net neutrality report, strongly endorsing net neutrality safeguards and calling on the government to reject the Bell coalition’s website blocking plan should the CRTC approve it. I was the first witness to appear before the committee on the study, where I emphasized the need for stronger net neutrality enforcement, the risks associated with changing U.S. policy, and the concerns associated the Bell website blocking proposal (which at the time had only been leaked). The committee picked up on all those issues, recommending enshrining net neutrality in the Telecommunications Act, calling on the government to seek assurances from the U.S. that its policies will not undermine Canadian traffic, and encouraging the CRTC to more proactively ensure that ISPs are compliant with Canadian law.
The committee report also waded into the site blocking issue, calling on the government to reject it should it be approved by the CRTC.
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Among the thousands of interventions at the CRTC to the Bell coalition website blocking plan, one of the submissions that stands out comes from Brian Hutchings, Brock University’s Vice-President, Administration. The submission claims that “Brock ardently supports the FairPlay Canada coalition” adding that “we are committed to assist the members of the coalition and the CRTC in eliminating the theft of digital content.” The submission sparked an immediate campus backlash. The Brock University Faculty Association filed a submission with the CRTC noting:
we stand in opposition to the intervention by Vice President, Administration on behalf of Brock University. Vice-President Hutching’s intervention was undertaken without consultation with the wider Brock University community, including faculty, librarians, and Senate; therefore, his submission should not be seen as indicative of the views of Brock University as a whole.
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When the Bell coalition filed its website blocking application earlier this year, the immediate response from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains was to point to the strength of existing copyright law:
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. 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.
I emphasized the point in my first post making the case against site blocking, arguing that Canada already has many legal provisions designed to assist copyright owners.
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With broad-based criticism of the Bell website blocking plan, supporters have tried to dismiss the opposition by characterizing much of their analysis as “misinformation”. Yet a review of many expert submissions reveals widely held concerns regarding the proposal. Many point to the absence of court orders as a key flaw and no one – whether supporter or critic – disputes that the majority of countries that have used site blocking require court orders. Further, claims that human rights concerns are unfounded ring hollow in light of the critical submission from the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. Efforts to dismiss the cost implications of site blocking are undermined by the clear position of the majority of Canadian Internet providers that the expenses associated with blocking are likely to lead to increased consumer costs and reduced competition.
Many submissions similarly point to the risks of over-blocking legitimate content.
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Given that Canadian consumers pay some of the highest fees among peer countries for Internet and wireless access, the federal government has increasingly emphasized the need to address Internet affordability. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has told the House of Commons that “Canadians pay enough for their Internet” and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains echoed the same concerns in a speech last year, noting that high costs create a digital divide that represents a barrier to continued prosperity for Canadians.
The Internet access cost concerns seems likely to emerge as a key issue in response to the Bell coalition website blocking plan. While some have tried to deflect the cost concern by pointing to the purported anti-piracy benefits of blocking (a claim that is subject to considerable dispute in the CRTC submissions), the clear position of the majority of Canadian providers – whether independent ISPs, cable companies, or satellite-based providers – is that the costs associated with blocking are likely to lead to increased consumer costs, reduced competition, and risks to extending broadband services to under-served areas.
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