What PROTECT IP Can Teach Us About Canadian IPRA Censorship

With Canadian ISPs and representatives from the copyright industry drafting a proposal to block websites, we decided to do a little digging of our own to examine the practicalities of implementing such a thing.

Yesterday, we broke the story that Bell, in collaboration with representatives of the copyright industry, is drafting a proposal that would force ISPs to block websites based on accusations of copyright infringement. The idea is that the CRTC (Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) would create a non-profit corporation called the Internet Piracy Review Agency (IPRA) to create and maintain a censorship database. ISPs would then be compelled to block any website accused of copyright infringement. The proposal is still in the draft phase and hasn’t even been submitted to the CRTC as of yet, but it is already generating concern across the Internet.

Of course, if you’ve been a long time observer such as us, a lot of the ideas might ring a bell. Other countries have faced similar pressures to censor the Internet to varying degrees by the copyright industry. Success in implementing the concept of an Internet censorship is a pretty mixed bag. The question then becomes, if a country chooses to censor the Internet at the behest of major multinational corporations under the guise of fighting copyright infringement, how successful is such a concept? The truth in the matter is, it almost never is and it often devolves into a major debacle in the end.

One such country is the United States. In 2011, major music labels and movie studios were pushing for a bill called the PROTECT IP act. At the time, I worked for ZeroPaid and analyzed the bill extensively. In short, the PROTECT IP act would mandate ISPs to block or disable access to domain names accused of copyright infringement. That alone makes this hugely relevant to the draft proposal because Bells IPRA proposal appears to do a very similar thing. We don’t know whether it is DNS blocking, or IP blocking, but regardless of the type of blocking, technical measures exist today to simply thwart such a concept. That is how I was able to compile a list of 8 technical measures that make Internet censorship efforts worthless. In order, the methods are: Using a VPN Service, Using Your HOSTs File, Using TOR, Using a Web DNS Tool, Changing Your DNS Server, Using Command Prompt, Using Foxy Proxy, and Using MAFIAAFire. After major public backlash, the PROTECT IP act was ultimately shelved because it in no way solved any of the problems and was even considered an Internet security risk.

So, while a blacklist is a technical nightmare on all practical fronts, it seems that others are pointing to problems implementing it on the policy side of things. Today, Michael Geist issued further comments on the subject, saying that the proposal is problematic on a number of fronts on the legal side of things. In the proposal, Bell contends, among other things, that the proposal would protect consumers privacy. That, among other things, was quickly shot down. From Geist:

I argue that the three justifications raised by Bell – that piracy “threatens the social and economic fabric of Canada”, that the telecommunications system should “encourage compliance with Canadian laws” and that website blocking “will significantly contribute toward the protection of the privacy of Canadian Internet users” – is very weak.

In fact, the privacy argument is not only weak, it is incredibly hypocritical. Bell is arguably the worst major Canadian telecom company on user privacy and its attempt to justify website blocking on the grounds that it wants to protect privacy is shameful. There are obviously far better ways of protecting user privacy from risks on the Internet than blocking access to sites that might create those risks. Further, with literally millions of sites that pose some privacy risk, few would argue that the solution lies in blocking all of them.

Yet Bell in particular is in no position to make this argument. Years after competitors such as Rogers and Telus released telecom transparency reports that disclose the frequency of subscriber information disclosures to law enforcement, Bell has still refused to release such a report, keeping millions of Canadians in the dark on the issue. Bell’s approach to “targeted advertising” also demonstrates how little regard it has for customer privacy. The company changed its privacy policy in 2013 to allow for expanded usage of subscriber data on everything from website visits to TV viewing habits. That led to its targeted ad program, in which it automatically enrolled millions of subscribers unless they proactively opted-out. When the Privacy Commissioner of Canada found that the program violated the law, Bell simply refused to comply

Bell’s radical website blocking plan is terrible policy for many reasons, but the claims that it can be justified on privacy grounds represent a new low for a company that has seemingly seen little value in prioritizing the privacy interests of its customers.

As for Bell, it appears that the company is remaining very quiet on the growing scandal. As of this writing, they have not issued any public comments on the matter.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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