The news that Bell has called on the Canadian government to support radical copyright reform in NAFTA that includes North America-wide mandatory website blocking (to be overseen in Canada by the CRTC) and the full criminalization of copyright represents only the latest step in the transformation of the company into one of Canada’s most aggressive copyright lobbyists and litigators. The Bell proposals go beyond what even the CACN, Canada’s anti-counterfeiting lobby group, has recommended. While copyright lobbying has been led for years by the movie and music industries, Bell has now broken with most other communications companies on copyright policy with policies barely distinguishable from the RIAA or MPAA. In recent years, it has argued against VPN use, used the courts to target a wide range of sites and services, lobbied for copyright reform in trade deals, and become the only telecom company in the world to join the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment.
Even for a company accustomed to adopting unpopular policy positions (Bell is the only major Canadian ISP without a privacy transparency report, it initially rejected the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s finding that its targeted ad program violated the law, it paid $1.3 million for do-not-call violations, it sparked the fight on usage based billing, and it has been at the centre of net neutrality violation cases), the transformation from a company supportive of balanced copyright to one that prioritizes aggressive enforcement is noteworthy.
When the Canadian Recording Industry Association launched file sharing lawsuits against individual Canadians in 2004, Bell initially adopted a neutral position, neither opposing the suits nor supporting them (Shaw and Telus were far more committed to protecting their customers’ privacy). Over the years, Bell typically sided with other ISPs, zealously safeguarding its positions as an intermediary in the Supreme Court of Canada’s SOCAN v. CAIP decision and successfully fighting for fair dealing in the 2012 SOCAN v. Bell ruling. During the 2009 national consultation on copyright, Bell attended a Toronto public roundtable and expressed support for the positions of the Business Coalition for Balanced Copyright (which featured telecom companies as members and which voiced support for fair use and appropriate limits on digital locks).
Bell’s public positions on copyright are far different today. George Cope, BCE’s CEO, famously switched “from a telecom network guy to media guy” in 2010, when he viewed the Winter Olympics female gold medal hockey game on his cellphone. The media side of its business represents only 12 percent of its revenues (adding TV distribution would increase that percentage), but the company now acts like an old guard media company when it comes to copyright. Former Bell Media Presidents Kevin Crull and Mary Ann Turcke took aim at VPN use in 2015, with Turcke claiming that using a VPN to access U.S. Netflix constituted theft. Data suggested that infringement rates were dropping dramatically on the Bell network, but Bell became active in the courts with lawsuits against distributors of digital TV boxes and the website TVAddons, a Kodi TV site. The ongoing suit against TVAddons was particularly newsworthy, as a federal court judge found that the true purpose was to “destroy the livelihood of the defendant.”
Earlier this year, Bell became an inaugural member of the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment, a new anti-piracy group. Membership costs Bell US$200,000 annually, for which it gets to suggest targets for law enforcement and to utilize the MPAA’s anti-piracy resources. Bell the only Canadian company in the motion picture association backed alliance.
Bell’s emergence as one of Canada’s most aggressive copyright lobbyists and litigators has major implications for future copyright reform in Canada. Leaving aside its enormously problematic NAFTA proposals, Bell seems likely to split from the rest of the industry when it comes to future copyright reform issues. While Rogers, Telus, and the rest of the telecom and ISP industry are likely to maintain support for copyright balance (including intermediary safe harbours and the notice-and-notice system), Bell may focus on greater enforcement activities, with its support for website blocking and increased criminalization of copyright the most obvious manifestation of its changing policy position.