Bell Wanted to Target VPN Services in it’s Web Censorship Plot

New details are emerging at just how far the Bell coalition was willing to go to censor the Internet. It seems that blocking some VPN services was also on the table.

Bell’s Fairplay coalition was an effort to import Internet censorship into Canada. The idea was that Canada have a digital wall to block websites major multinational copyright holders didn’t like and make Canada manage and pay for it. Back in October of last year, to the relief of Canadians everywhere, the idea was rejected by Canadian regulators.

As with many other censorship proposals in the world, the question quickly became just how far the censorship would go. As is an all-too familiar argument, the few proponents of the scheme argued that it would only go after the most egregious sites. Now, details are emerging that this isn’t actually the case. Bell apparently pushed the Canadian government to also ban some Virtual Private Network (VPN) services as well. From Michael Geist:

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).

This definitely shows that censorship was not only a fear, but part of the plan from the very beginning. Censorship creep is the idea that only a small set of services get targeted, however, as time goes on, definitions get expanded and, gradually, more and more sites and services get blocked.

While some skeptics might look at this and say that this is just a conspiracy theory and it would never actually happen, Australia is proving to be a very big real world example of this.

In 2014, Australia went through a very similar debate, but tragically, the results were the opposite of what happened in Canada. In 2014, Australia passed Internet censorship laws. The idea way back then is that sites with a “primary purpose” would get blocked. After heavy lobbying by the major multinational corporate copyright interests, the laws got passed much to the dismay of digital rights groups and advocates.

After a small number of sites got blocked, it quickly became clear that the language “primary purpose” was meant to be the most politically palatable for the time being. Last year, the copyright lobbyists were back and demanding more. They pushed for the language to be changed from “primary purpose” to “primary effect”. The change in language meant that if it’s possible for a service to be used for infringement, then it could get blocked. As a result, any website could theoretically be blocked no matter how legal it was.

The government ultimately passed the amendments with little regard for evidence after lobbyists spent millions to get the law passed. At that point, it was open season for Internet censorship in the country.

First up, fan-sub sites were targeted for censorship even though the sites don’t actually carry copyrighted material. From there, the international corporate copyright interests set their sites on online converting websites under the theory that it’s technically possible to convert the format of copyrighted material.

More recently, retailers jumped onto the censorship bandwagon. They demanded that competing overseas retail services get blocked as well. With censorship spiralling out of control in the country, the only thing observers find themselves asking is, “which site is next?”

With Canada’s regulator rejecting the Bell coalition’s Internet censorship proposal, Canadians crucially avoided all of those kinds of problems dead in its tracks. Not only was the plan for Canada prone to out of control censorship, it was even built into the initial plan when proposed to the Canadian government at the very beginning.

So, for Canadians, another copyright bullet has been dodged for now.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top