Telecom by yum9me (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/53jSy4
Canadians have become increasingly troubled by reports revealing that telecom and Internet companies receive millions of requests for subscriber data from a wide range of government departments. In light of public concern, some Internet and telecom companies have begun to issue regular transparency reports that feature aggregate data on the number of requests they receive and the disclosures they make.
The transparency reports from companies such as Rogers, Telus, and TekSavvy have helped shed light on government demands for information and on corporate disclosure practices. However, they also paint an incomplete picture since companies have offered up inconsistent data and some of the largest, including Bell, have thus far refused to come clean on past requests and disclosures.
For governments accustomed to wielding their power to regulate local activity, the Internet has long been a source of frustration. From music sites to Uber to AirBNB, online services represent an enormous challenge to conventional government regulation, which typically relies on a jurisdictional hook to compel compliance.
While most reputable global companies can ill-afford to simply ignore laws or court orders, there are still websites that operate largely beyond the reach of government regulation. In response, some governments have attempted to regulate online behaviour, ordering Internet providers to block access to offending websites.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that Canadians have generally been spared website blocking initiatives due in part to the Telecommunications Act, which prohibits carriers from controlling “the content or influence the meaning or purpose of telecommunications carried by it for the public.” That rule means that Internet providers are effectively prohibited from unilaterally blocking content.
Rogers Media’s recent decision to slash 110 jobs and end all newscasts at OMNI, its multicultural channel, has sparked outrage among many ethnic communities, who have lamented the cancellation of local news programs in Italian, Punjabi, Cantonese, and Mandarin. Supporters argue that OMNI programming is essential to those communities and worry that the cancellations will mean that viewers become less politically engaged.
Last week, a House of Commons committee held a hearing on the OMNI cuts as members of Parliament from each party took Rogers executives to task. Rogers was unsurprisingly unapologetic, noting that the decision was based on simple economics as it pointed to declining advertising revenues that made the programming unsustainable.
Bell’s recent characterization of Canadians using virtual private networks to access U.S. Netflix as thieves has attracted considerable attention. Yesterday, I posted on why accessing U.S. Netflix is not theft, noting that a minority of Canadian Netflix subscribers use VPNs and arguing that the frustration seems rooted in business concerns rather than legal ones. The post added that Netflix and CraveTV (Bell’s online video service) have little overlap in content. Working with Kavi Sivasothy, one of my research students, we took a closer look at the libraries of Netflix U.S., Netflix Canada, and CraveTV. We relied on AllFlicks.net for the Netflix data and CraveTV’s own A to Z page for its data.
Based on that information, how many titles does CraveTV offer that overlap with Netflix U.S. and are not available on Netflix Canada? Not many. In fact, the data suggests that there are some CraveTV titles that are not available on Netflix U.S., but are available on Netflix Canada. Overall, more than 90 percent of CraveTV’s titles are not available on either Netflix U.S. or Netflix Canada. [UPDATE: Thanks to a reader for pointing out a few omissions from the chart. The error was due to different spelling in the Netflix and CraveTV lists. The numbers have been updated].
Bell Media president Mary Ann Turcke sparked an uproar last week when she told a telecom conference that Canadians who use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access the U.S. version of Netflix are stealing. Turcke is not the first Canadian broadcast executive to raise the issue – her predecessor Kevin Crull and Rogers executive David Purdy expressed similar frustration with VPN use earlier this year – but her characterization of paying customers as thieves was bound to garner attention.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) argues that Turcke’s comments provide evidence of the mounting frustration among Canadian broadcasters over Netflix’s remarkable popularity in Canada. Netflix launched in Canada less than five years ago, yet reports indicate that it now counts 40 per cent of English-speaking Canadians as subscribers. By contrast, Bell started its Mobile TV service within weeks of the Netflix launch, but today has less than half the number of subscribers.