To block or not to block

Critics say proposal to block websites engaged in piracy is a “big hammer” for a small problem

A new proposal to block websites that host pirated content is being called both a necessary step to protect content creators from theft, and a slippery slope to internet censorship in Canada.

The proposal was filed on Jan. 29 with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) by 31 Canadian media companies and industry organizations, including Bell, Rogers and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

It calls for the creation of an agency to “identify websites and services that are blatantly, overwhelmingly, or structurally engaged in piracy,” and require that internet service providers disable access to them.

Michael Geist, Canada research chair in internet and e-commerce law and a professor of law at Ottawa University, called the website blocking proposal a “big hammer” for a relatively small issue.

“It’s something that we haven’t seen and something that is typically viewed as more akin to what you see in countries like China or Saudi Arabia, certainly not something that you would see in Canada,” he said.

Geist said that Canada already has some of the toughest anti-piracy laws in the world and that the proposal represents a “major step beyond” accepted means of pursuing copyright infringement.

Canada’s Copyright Act sets out conditions for copyright holders, those that own the rights to perform and reproduce works, to pursue claims and damages for unauthorized distribution of their materials. But not everyone thinks that the existing measures are adequate to protect copyrighted material.

Howard Law, the media director of Unifor, a union that is part of the coalition supporting the application, said that copyright has been “unenforcible through conventional legal methods,” and that other countries around the world have been moving towards blocking to protect copyright.

Law said it’s naive to think that piracy doesn’t impact jobs in the Canadian media industry, and that opposition to the proposal seems to stem from a desire to protect the distribution of free content.

“That’s stealing,” he said. “Content isn’t free, it costs money no matter how you do it.”

A recent report from the Canadian Media Production Association shows that production volume for screen content in Canada reached an all-time high of $8.38 billion in 2016-17, a 24 per cent increase over the previous year. The investment in screen content in Canada also created 171,000 full-time jobs.

The report also showed continued revenue growth for paid online content services. Netflix was the big winner in Canada, drawing revenues of $709 million last year, up from $553 million in 2015-16. Canadian on demand services including Crave TV and Club Illico, which are owned by Bell and Vidéotron respectively, also showed increased revenues over the previous year.

SOCAN, a Canadian organization with over 100,000 music creators and publishers as members, reported an internet streaming revenue of $33.8 million in 2016, an 118 per cent increase in revenue over the previous year.

Open Media, an organization that aims to stop internet censorship and surveillance, opposes the proposal. The organization’s executive director Laura Tribe said that she is concerned about the scope of the proposed piracy blocking agency growing, and that most illegal downloading happens because there aren’t accessible and affordable alternatives.

“What we think is a better solution than an overreaching censorship proposal is to actually make that content more available and affordable to people to access online where they are, not just through outdated cable TV models,” said Tribe.

A report put out Muso, a company that collects data on and creates products to combat piracy found that in 2016 there were 1.88 billion visits to sites where content is illegally downloaded and streamed in Canada.

Globally, the International Chamber of Commerce reported that the estimated value of pirated movies, music and software was US$213 billion USD in 2015, the equivalent of $296 billion Canadian at the time. 

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To block or not to block