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Bell’s Website Blocking Plan Is Authoritarian Overkill

"With legal options for content delivery on the upswing, effective tools for curbing piracy already in place, and illegal sharing on the downward slide, Bell's website blocking proposal is like using a machine gun to kill a mosquito."

This piece by our Laura Tribe was originally published by Huffington Post Canada.

Today, Canadians across the country are standing up against internet censorship in Canada.

Last month, experts, activists, policy-makers and citizens across the country were shocked by an unprecedented proposal to regulate the internet that, if enacted, could change the way Canadians share and collaborate online forever.

FairPlay Canada, a new coalition spearheaded by the country's largest vertically integrated conglomerate Bell Canada, is asking the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to create a new, government-backed internet censorship committee with a mandate to combat online piracy.

The proposal is backed by a coalition of over 25 unlikely allies, and would force the country's internet service providers (ISPs) to block websites accused of engaging in or facilitating piracy without court oversight.

While the move has sparked significant outrage online, it's sadly unsurprising, as the idea of mandatory blocking was floated by Bell during the NAFTA consultations last September, and rumours of the CRTC proposal were leakedvia Canadaland back in December.

Website blocking like the Bell-led coalition is proposing is extremely uncommon. While examples can be found among authoritarian states like China's "great firewall," or Russia's problematic anti-piracy system, these types of extra-judicial proposals have enjoyed little support among liberal democracies committed to basic rights like freedom of expression. Any that have ventured into this territory have at least ensured judicial oversight.

For recent evidence of this, we need look no further than our neighbours to the south. The FairPlay proposal bears significant resemblance to the United States' much-maligned Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which failed in Congress after a massive public outcry from Internet users and technology companies in 2012. Early reactions to the Bell-led proposal give us every reason to believe that Canada's own SOPA moment is upon us.

Given that other countries have by-and-large rejected the type of radical regulation Bell is proposing, one might wonder if there's any reason Canada should break with this consensus and go its own way. Our answer? Not a chance.

Bell's website blocking proposal is like using a machine gun to kill a mosquito.

First off, FairPlay Canada's solution is at best ineffective overkill, and at worst intentionally misleading. The evidence suggests piracy is not hurting Canadian producers the way Bell would have you believe, thanks to the near ubiquity of affordable, popular streaming services like Netflix and Spotify. Music streaming revenues and Canadian film production continue to grow year over year. With legal options for content delivery on the upswing, effective tools for curbing piracy already in place, and illegal sharing on the downward slide, Bell's website blocking proposal is like using a machine gun to kill a mosquito.

Second, Bell's plan simply doesn't fit with the CRTC and federal government's commitments to the open internet. Website blocking is a blunt tool that inevitably leads to legal and legitimate content being censored. The evidence consistently shows that powerful actors invariably find ways to block content that is inconvenient to their political views or bottom line.

Given that Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains has repeatedly pledged his support for the principles of net neutrality, it seems that a web blocking system that could be manipulated to stop Canadians from expressing themselves and innovating online would be a non-starter. Should the CRTC accept and pursue the idea, all eyes will turn to Minister Bains to use his order-in-council powers to overturn it.

Finally, this proposal will be the first true test of the CRTC's new Chair Ian Scott, who took the helm of the regulator in late 2017. According to multiple reports, Scott, a former telecom executive, "isn't vying for the spotlight," and wants to keep the focus squarely on the facts and evidence presented on the public record. Unfortunately for Scott, the facts in this proceeding seem to be pointing to a public relations nightmare looming in the distance.

Since Bell's proposal was released, over 6,000 individuals have gone directly to the CRTC's difficult to navigate website to submit individual comments opposing Bell's plan; this is completely unprecedented. In the meantime, OpenMedia'sStop Canada Censorship campaign has generated over 28,000 additional comments which will be submitted in advance of the Commission's March 29 deadline for input.

The tremors we're feeling from Reddit, the thousands of comments already submitted to the CRTC and the tens of thousands more comments collected by OpenMedia, all signal that something big is brewing. What we're feeling are the tectonic plates of free expression and entrenched interests butting against one another in the latest battle over whether the Internet will remain an open platform for innovation, or be transformed into a private, walled garden designed to serve the bottom line of a small handful of telecommunications companies.

Today's Day of Action, with over 30 organizations and companies speaking up against this overreaching web blocking proposal, should be a strong indication that Canadians will not let companies like Bell destroy the open Internet without a fight.

To Scott and Bains, we offer this: ignore these tremors at your peril, lest you find yourself on the wrong side of the open internet.

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