Internet Censorship Making a Comeback in Canada, Warns Expert

There’s growing efforts to overturn the results of the Internet censorship debate in Canada. Michael Geist is warning that we could see round 2.

In 2018, there was a fierce debate over whether or not Canada should adopt Internet censorship. Internet censorship, or site blocking, was ruled unconstitutional by a Quebec Superior court.

Then there was the notorious Fairplay Canada site blocking proposal drafted by Bell, a major media conglomerate back in 2017. Those debates went into 2018 where, at one point, a member of the so-called “Fairplay” coalition threatened Freezenet with a SLAPP lawsuit for pointing out flaws in the arguments for Internet censorship. While the irony detectors of observers who saw that exploded over that one, that article was about all the coalition was able to censor.

Canada’s regulator, the CRTC, rejected Internet censorship. This in spite of allegations of Bell performing backroom deals with the regulator in an effort to get it approved. The final rejection, at the time, seemed to signal that the push to bring Internet censorship into Canada was dead and that consumer and free speech rights advocates were ultimately successful.

Now, we are learning that the debate may not be dead like it should be. There are apparently efforts to revive the censorship debate as large mega corporations are trying one more time to censor the Internet. From Michael Geist:

In addition to the case at the Federal Court of Appeal, the copyright related website blocking seems likely to be the subject of a public consultation this summer as the ISED and Canadian Heritage copyright departments continue to dismiss the results of Canada’s most extensive copyright consultation in a decade. The department release on the deeply flawed copyright term extension consultation (now extended until the end of month) included a reference to a follow-up consultation on a “modern framework for online intermediaries.” That is thinly-veiled code for a website blocking system, particularly given that the online intermediary issue was just modernized during the last copyright reform process in 2012. In other words, the lobbyist pressure for website blocking continues and the departments are sadly all-too-eager to comply.

The CRTC is currently conducting a consultation on botnet blocking. The first round of comments closed on Monday. The CRTC has raised the possibility of several different types of blocking, including domain-based blocking, Internet Protocol (IP)-based blocking, and protocol-based blocking. It states that its preliminary view is that “network-level blocking is a viable strategy to prevent the harm botnets cause to Canadians and to promote the Act’s policy objectives.” It notes that safeguards would be needed, including the ability to opt-out at a subscriber level and to “minimize subscriber information monitoring, collection, and usage.”

Yet the reality is that Canada’s telecom providers have been working on these issues for decades without the need for a regulator to mandate a blocking system. Further, any blocking system creates collateral damage including over-blocking of legitimate websites and increased costs for consumers. While there is room to increase information sharing and update codes of conduct, a CRTC-based blocking mandate will open the door to a steadily expansive approach to Internet blocking. In fact, the consultation has already attracted a submission from Allarco Entertainment that wants an expansive definition of botnets to include streaming devices so that blocking would extend to copyright with mandated blocking against unauthorized streams (in other words, Fairplay through the botnet back door).

Allarco’s botnet bait and switch to copyright demonstrates the slippery slope that arises in the context of content blocking. So too does the forthcoming online harms legislation, where the prospect of mandated blocking of hate content is a real possibility. Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has already downplayed the risks of constitutional challenges of the legislation, despite the fact that the provisions on misinformation in Canada’s election law has been struck down by a court as unconstitutional. The government has thus far shown little regard for the speech implications of its Internet regulation plans, suggesting that blocking could be part of the policy equation. If so, a constitutional challenge would be inevitable. When combined with policy developments in the copyright and CRTC fronts, there is a major effort underway to reshape the Canadian Internet with concerns around net neutrality and freedom of expression seemingly giving way to government and regulator-backed blocking schemes.

Ultimately, the debate is over and should be over. Canada is no place to institute Internet censorship based on copyright complaints. There’s no substantive evidence to support demanding this. The benefits are pretty much non-existent and it’s a direct threat to free speech. It also raises the risk of collateral damage as well.

Furthermore, it is unclear how effective these ideas would be. For those who know their history of file-sharing, protocol-based blocking has been a proven failure.

ISPs in different countries opted to start performing what is known as “traffic shaping”. Supposedly, ISPs were trying to block file-sharing protocols under the guise of ensuring that networks don’t get congested (which was never even close to being the case). At the time, eDonkey2000 clients was a major player in the File-sharing world and BitTorrent was entering its heyday. Clients for both networks started implementing features known as protocol obfuscation. Essentially, the clients were evading ISP censorship by encrypting the traffic. From there, it became an arms race with file-sharing clients constantly winning the day.

Domain-based blocking is also laughably worthless. This is also known as DNS-based blocking. Back in 2011, the US were having a debate about Internet censorship through the PROTECT IP act. This act would institute domain-based blocking. Back then, I personally wrote an article that pretty much spelled out why such an idea is a dead on arrival proposal even if the law is implemented. It was a failure back then and it will be a failure now.

IP based blocking is a different form of censorship. Domain-based blocking blocks the web address while the IP based blocking blocks the IP address behind the domain name. It is equally worthless because there are many ways of circumventing this as well. Much like what I highlighted in the article of what made PROTECT IP act also applies here. You have programs like the TOR network and services like VPN’s that can easily thwart these measures.

So, ultimately, the three mentioned methods are all technically unworkable. It won’t scrub sites the corporations don’t like from the web effectively. At the same time, you’ll have enormous collateral damage to contend with. False positives are something that runs rampant to this day. YouTube’s ContentID is notorious for taking down content that easily falls within the realm of Fair Dealing – not to mention that it’s been known to take down content that is in the public domain as well. Creators stand to get hurt in all of this through, at the very least, false positives. There is also the threat creators have when someone initiates a copyright trolling campaign.

It’s highly unfortunate that this debate – which should have been settled once and for all back in 2018, is now being resurrected again. Of course, leave it to corporations to try one more time to try and wreck the Internet.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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