Box Launch by David Bleasdale (CC BY 2.0)

Box Launch by David Bleasdale (CC BY 2.0)


Government Docs Suggest Officials Thinking About Website Blocking, Targeting VPN Usage

The Trudeau government has thus far said very little about its plans for future digital and copyright policy reform. There were few references in its election platform and the ministerial mandate letters that identify immediate policy priorities did not speak to the issue.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that according to ministerial briefing documents recently released by the government, Canadian Heritage officials have told new minister Mélanie Joly that emerging issues may include targeting the use of virtual private networks and website blocking. The comments can be found in a departmental briefing for Joly on copyright policy, which includes a discussion titled “what’s next” for copyright.

The document identifies three issues, each likely to be exceptionally controversial. The first involves the use of virtual private networks (VPN) for copyright infringing purposes.  VPNs are widely used in corporate environments to ensure secure communications and by a growing number of individual Internet users seeking technological tools to better safeguard their online privacy.

The same technologies can be used to hide infringing activity, however. Those activities raise genuine issues, though the prospect of targeting the technology itself would quickly generate robust opposition from those who rely on VPNs for a myriad of legitimate purposes.

Officials point to “hybrid legal/illegal offer of online content” as another emerging issue. The reference to hybrid offering may be a reference to those accessing U.S. Netflix, which is a legal service, but raises concerns when a non-U.S. subscriber accesses content that is not licensed in their country. The popularity of accessing U.S. Netflix attracted considerable attention earlier this year when a Bell Media executive said that that Canadians who access the U.S. version of Netflix are stealing.

If officials are considering legislative reforms, that may confirm what most legal experts have long maintained: claims that current copyright law prohibits subscriber access to U.S. Netflix is very weak. There is a possible argument that subscribers violate new rules against circumventing technological protection measures (better known as digital locks), but without any damages and with Netflix needed to enforce its rights against its own customers, there is no real prospect of legal action.

Much like new legal rules for VPN use, new laws on accessing foreign streaming services would be complicated and difficult to enforce.  With millions of Canadian Netflix users, there is no possibility of targeting individuals. The only real possibility is take action against the streaming services themselves. Canada already has tough laws targeting websites that enable infringement, but so-called hybrid services are a business issue for rights holders rather than a matter for copyright reform.

If targeting VPNs and U.S. Netflix were not enough, department officials also focus on website blocking, stating that “Internet service provider blocking of illegal sites hosted outside Canada” is an emerging issue.

As recently highlighted in the context of Quebec’s plans to require blocking of unlicensed online gambling sites, mandating website blocking raises serious legal concerns including who determines whether a site is “illegal”, how to force Internet providers to block access to foreign sites, and how to address the inevitable constitutional concerns over government-backed blocking requirements. Indeed, the prospect of considering expanded blocking for copyright purposes validates the fears of civil liberties groups that the introduction of blocking requirements invariably expands to cover a wider net of content.

Canadian copyright was already on track for a boisterous debate in the coming years with changes such as copyright term extension mandated by the Trans Pacific Partnership and a review of the law scheduled for 2017. If government officials envision adding VPN usage, access to U.S. Netflix, and website blocking to the list of issues, copyright could emerge as one of the government’s most difficult and controversial issues.


  1. They should outlaw the illegal activity, not the tools used to perform the activity. It’s like outlawing face masks because they’re used rob banks – but that leaves a lot of skiers with frost bitten noses!!!

    • Jeff Carpenter says:

      If it were illegal it wouldn’t have to be outlawed. But it is effecting Bell Media’s profits.

  2. CRTC & the Heritage Ministry: Remove thy finger from the dyke and stop the continued attempt to protect corporate stakeholders, such as BCE. You lost the battle a long time ago. Put the work into reforms, make a push to resolve this mess. Being a reactionary on these issues, places you back in a pre-tech age.

  3. the new hybrid com systems come up
    as various officials try to cordon off parts of the net for themselves.

    que gambling, bell+netflick, VPNs.

    news, vice, entertainment, work.

    applied truthiness, regional one censorship zones and sat-VPNs should be next.

    if they aren’t already here.

  4. Well, this should be a good test on how technologically savvy, and beholden to big business, the new government is.

  5. Hmmm, if the government has an issue with VPNs, it should be interesting to see what it thinks about TOR.

  6. If the entertainment industry has another think coming if they believe they will have their way with the Trudeau government. Their predecessor was run by people who did not even HAVE computers growing up; let alone understand their significance.

    Blocking websites and technologies such as VPN’s treats the symptom that is piracy; not the cause which is poor availability due to gratuitous restrictions on media availability. The entertainment industry is running completely backwards in demanding that consumers cater to their rules when they should be pleasing us (the customer).

    Make all content within easy reach from anywhere in the world and say goodbye to your piracy problem.

    • Whoops, typo. First sentence should read “The entertainment industry has another…”.

    • When you can get Netflix and Hulu for $20 a month why would anyone stay with the gigolos , and that pretty well sums up Canada’s Corporate leaches. Bell, Rogers, Telus, Shaw can be used as an example of the Dictionary meaning of entitlement.

  7. Another industry might see customers ready and willing to pay for content, and recognize that as a business opportunity.

    • The main issue is that most of the mainstream content is controlled by a select number of organizations whom are ridiculously restrictive at the moment. It would be difficult for such a business to prosper until the major labels loosen their grip so to speak.

  8. Attacking VPN technology or the underlying cryptography is equivalent to declaring war on math. It is deeply disturbing to hear senior bureaucrats honestly suggesting this. It shows they are dangerously out of touch with Canadians. I really hope the Minister listens to other (more informed) opinions.

    • I suspect that many in power are completely out of touch with technology causing them to fear it instead. A lot of these companies’ CEO’s are baby boomers who did not grow up using computers. They do not know the true usage and purpose of VPN’s; just that it ‘somehow’ helps pirates hide their identity (and so they want it all banned).

      This heavy-handed approach will get us nowhere though; these guys REALLY need to retire and let younger blood take over. Just like how Trudeau has succeeded Harper and now things are improving drastically.

      • Hi Joseph,
        I understand where you’re coming from because I was also once a kid. However, let me tell you that you are gravely mistaken about the understanding of technology being age related. You need to get out more.

        On the general side, almost all the technology you’re using now was invented by your grandparents generation. Things such as TCP/IP and indeed the very math to do VPNs. On the more personal side, I’m almost 70 and I run my own VPNs and tunnels when I need. And no, I don’t use some corporate GUI based click-on-stuff operating system like the kids are using these days – because I grew up learning to read and write. So, my extensive use of computers is mostly command line based. There are many old farts like me who understand internet technology very well. Please know that we will continue to fight for our own freedoms – and yours.

        • I do not doubt that your generation created the foundation to which modern technology was built upon and that not ALL of you are out of touch. The point I was making is that there are others from your generation in positions of power making decisions on technology they do not necessarily understand.

          Because of that, they end up afraid of it and employ blanket legislation such as banning all VPN’s. The same sort of thing happens with BitTorrent as you’d be surprised how many believe it’s only used for piracy.

          I do know what you mean about command lines vs GUI and I don’t contest that point. GUI’s certainly do simplify several tasks (e.g. setting up a router would be considerably more difficult if you had to issue raw commands to it) but when things suddenly break, people like you who know the operating system inside out become very much needed.

  9. The primary reason behind why I started using a VPN was due to the revelation about law enforcement and their complete contempt for due process and basic civil rights.

    In other words, I started using a VPN out of anger and the need to rebel against what I see as injustice. I have no doubt I’m not the only one, too.

    No doubt the Canadian government will approach VPN’s from the perspective that anyone whom uses one must be guilty of some crime. After all, innocent people have nothing to hide.


  10. There’s a great free command-line tool included with Windows (it’s of course originally a UNIX tool) called tracert
    If you use that, and are on the Bell network, you can see that many times when you trace the route to another Canadian-based service, it’s actually routed via an Internet Exchange the United States (NYC). In the United States, *ANY* foreign traffic is and was “fair game” for any of the 3-letter acronym agencies and none of the reforms affect foreign traffic.
    Using a VPN will thwart our neighbours of sticking their noses is our private business.

    What is it with the Copyright Industry that they exert so much influence? Do they have the right combination of monetary bribes and non-monetary bribes (free tickets, behind the scene meet-and-greets with “stars” that makes daddy/mommy look awesome, gifts, etc.)? SOMETHING is really off here. It’s about time someone went undercover and found out what it is.

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  16. geez, Justin trudeau is even worse than harper! A 44 year old who doesn’t understand there are legitimate uses for a VPN must be sorely out of touch with the rest of the country, and should be following, not leading.

  17. See how professional the people sound for the phone. The most frequent pest which you see in homes is bugs.
    Slugs and snails are meant to be allergic to it.

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  20. Mr. Bell VIP – some would consider the rates you charge as “stealing”.