Last year, Bell and its supporters denied that its “Fairplay” site blocking plan would apply to virtual private networks (VPNs). Yet as first reported by the Wire Report (sub required), Bell asked the Canadian government to target some VPNs in its submission on the NAFTA re-negotiations. Throughout the site blocking debate, many cited concerns that the Bell coalition plan would expand beyond certain websites to VPNs. For example, I posted:
Once the list of piracy sites (whatever the standard) is addressed, it is very likely that the Bell coalition will turn its attention to other sites and services such as virtual private networks (VPNs). This is not mere speculation. Rather, it is taking Bell and its allies at their word on how they believe certain services and sites constitute theft. The use of VPNs, which enhance privacy but also allow users to access out-of-market content, has been sore spot for the companies for many years.
Just days after Bell spoke directly with a CRTC commissioner in the summer of 2017 seeking to present on its site blocking proposal to the full commission, it asked Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland to target VPNs as Canada’s key copyright demand in the trade talks. Its submission to the government stated:
The Canadian cultural industry has long been significantly harmed by the use of virtual-private-network (VPN) services, which facilitate the circumvention of technological protection measures put in place to respect copyright ownership in other jurisdictions such as Canada…When the ability to enforce rights in national markets breaks down it inevitably favours the largest markets (which become the de facto “global” market) at the expense of smaller open economies like Canada. This harms Canada both economically and culturally.
Canada should seek rules in NAFTA that require each party to explicitly make it unlawful to offer a VPN service used for the purpose of circumventing copyright, to allow rightsholders from the other parties to enforce this rule, and to confirm that is a violation of copyright if a service effectively makes content widely available in territories in which it does not own the copyright due to an ineffective or insufficiently robust geo-gating system.
This is precisely the concern that was raised in the context of the Bell coalition blocking system given fears it would expand to multi-use services such as VPNs just as a growing number of Internet users are turning to the technology to better safeguard their privacy and prevent online tracking.
In fact, the Bell submission went even further than just VPNs, urging the government to consider additional legal requirements on ISPs to enforce copyright rules:
Notice-and-notice has been a very incomplete solution to the problem of widespread digital piracy. While we do not believe it should be eliminated, the Government should explore other ways to secure the cooperation of service providers whose services are used for piracy (such as the site-blocking regimes required in Europe and also in place in many other countries throughout the world).
I’ve written before about how Bell is a global outlier among telecom companies with its aggressive lobbying for increased obligations for telecom companies with respect to copyright enforcement. Its secret attempt to target VPNs leaves little doubt that the now-defeated site blocking proposal would have invariably expanded far beyond a narrow group of websites and should be considered as part of the renewed emphasis on site blocking as part of the copyright review and the broadcast and telecom review.