A coalition of major Canadian telecoms, film and TV-related companies, cultural organizations, one labour union, and the national broadcaster have joined forces to propose a government-led website blocking regime to stamp out media piracy.
The solution proposed by the coalition, called FairPlay Canada, would see companies submit websites to be blocked to an independent government committee, which would then decide which websites meet the criteria of "blatantly, overwhelmingly or structurally" facilitating illegal downloading or streaming of media. Canada’s federal telecom regulator, the CRTC, would at that point order internet service providers to block customers in Canada from accessing these sites.
FairPlay Canada argues that digital piracy reduces profits and in turn hurts jobs, but digital rights groups like OpenMedia see FairPlay Canada’s proposal as opening the door to more censorship. This has already been seen elsewhere: The UK began blocking piracy websites in 2012, and within a year pornography sites were being blocked too. But experts dispute that Canada really has a piracy problem to match this aggressive solution.
“I would contest the claim that Canada has a huge piracy problem, particularly compared to the rest of the world,” said David Fewer, an intellectual property lawyer and director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) at the University of Ottawa, in an email.
“Unauthorized streaming took a nosedive with the coming of Netflix and similar streaming services,” Fewer added. “Music piracy was a huge millennial issue because of the failure of the industry to launch useful and affordable digital services. iTunes and Spotify changed all that. Even [industry group] Music Canada’s own report claims that Canada is significantly beneath the global piracy average.”
Indeed, that group’s 2017 report states that 33 percent of Canadian survey respondents said they pirated music that year, compared to 40 percent globally. A report by anti-piracy company MUSO—submitted by FairPlay Canada as part of its CRTC application—states that Canadians visited piracy websites 1.88 billion times in 2016. That sounds huge, but the MUSO report says Canada is eighth in the world for piracy by site visits.
MUSO’s “piracy demand rank” for Canada, which “looks at the bigger picture” and “categorizes each country in terms of its engagement with piracy when ranked against other countries,” puts Canada even lower: 16th in the world.
“I think the answer is no—the evidence suggests that Canada does not have a major piracy problem,” Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, wrote me in an email. “If anything, the data suggests that Canada is below global averages and has been steadily declining as more legitimate services enter the market.”
According to the CRTC’s annual report for 2017, traditional TV viewership in Canada was “relatively stable” in 2016 compared to previous years. In addition, the CRTC noted that the broadcasting sector’s profits decreased by a mere 0.14 percent between 2012 and 2016, and the television industry’s profits actually increased by 1.7 percent between 2015 and 2016, up to $7.3 billion CAD. The CRTC concludes that Canadians are still watching traditional media (and, it follows, paying for it).
What is changing, though, is that more Canadians are also using legal digital services like Netflix or Spotify to consume media. “The data again and again shows marketplace success in Canada for digital services,” Geist wrote in an email.
All the available data suggests that Canada doesn’t have an especially bad piracy problem. Yet there are many potential pitfalls for a plan as extreme as government-led website blocking: When the UK began blocking some porn sites, many legitimate health, sex education, and abuse help sites were also wrongfully blocked. Some groups have suggested as many as one in five sites were blocked in the UK in 2014.
One thing is certain: The Canadian media industry’s anti-piracy measures have recently reached a peak of aggression. In 2017, telecom companies Bell, Rogers, and Quebecor property Videotron (all three are members of FairPlay Canada), used a civil search warrant to allegedly invade the home of TVAddons founder Adam Lackman for 16 hours, interrogating him for nine and forcing him to hand over passwords. TVAddons is a site that serves as a library to download plugins (many legitimate) for Kodi streaming boxes. A federal court judge later called the search “egregious” in a ruling and concluded it was designed to “destroy the livelihood” of Lackman. The items taken from Lackman were ordered returned, but the telecoms appealed, and nothing can be returned until a ruling on the appeal is made.
“Canada is always labeled a ‘piracy haven’ whenever special interests call for more, longer and stronger copyright protection,” the CIPPIC’s Fewer wrote me in an email. “ I wouldn’t expect things to be any different this time around, and they’re not.”
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