This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
As you pore over a scrumptious listicle about the 17 best movies of 2014 and wonder which ones to torrent, be warned that when the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2015, a letter may be in the mail with your name on it if you decide to join the peer-to-peer swarm.
Beginning on January 2, 2015, Canadians downloading and sharing copyrighted materials (TV shows, movies, songs, etc.) will be subject to new "notice and notice" provisions under Canada's 2012 Copyright Modernization Act. But what does this mean for the average internet lowlife?
Practically, the law means new powers will come online for rights holders to send threatening letters to internet subscribers whose IP addresses are alleged to have pirated copyrighted material. But it's not clear that these notices will truly have any teeth—yet.
A few internet service providers (ISPs) have already been sending the letters to customers to inform them that the 240p cam-rips they've been downloading off of sites like The Pirate Bay are illegal, and that they should cut it out. But the difference in 2015 will be that the notice and notice provision will officially come into force. Thus, more people will see more letters.
The letters have already started working. Data from Rogers reveal that only 5 percent of subscribers receive notices about piracy, 68 percent receive one notice, 89 percent of alleged pirates receive two notices, and only one customer in 800,000 gets "numerous notices." So it looks like once users get the official message in legalese, most of them stop all the downloading or perhaps switch to a less traceable method of not paying for content.
In summary, the notice and notice system seems to have a lot going for it. A great deal of Canadians politely stop infringing copyright when asked nicely, without messy court battles or people getting kicked offline. So why worry now?
Canada's copyright law doesn't oblige ISPs to divulge any information about the alleged offender to the plaintiff, so alleged pirates are currently well protected from the mass lawsuits by copyright trolls that have proved so popular in the United States. Copyright trolls are firms that will try to find all alleged pirates of certain files from their clients, and threaten the scofflaws with expensive lawsuits until they pay up.
Right now, ISPs are simply required to keep a record of the notice to the subscriber for six months, or one year if it somehow becomes a court case. Information like name, address, etc. remains private, out of the hands of trolls.
But Canada's protections against these legal goon squads could soon evaporate, thanks to a new law making its way through Parliament.
As Motherboard previously reported, the bill, called S-4 or the Digital Privacy Act, would "allow for an organization to 'disclose personal information without the knowledge or consent of the individual,' in circumstances of fraud or 'for the purposes of investigating a breach of an agreement or a contravention of the laws of Canada or a province that has been, is being or is about to be committed.'"
Now, obviously hopping onto a torrent swarm to download and share copyrighted material is illegal, so it seems pretty clear that ISPs could voluntarily, warrantlessly, and secretly hand out subscriber information if S-4 becomes law. In that case, you may not get a warning letter. Instead, you'd be on the end of a legal threat asking you to pay up anywhere from $20 to $5,000 per infringement or head to court.
VICE reporter Justin Ling queried Industry Minister James Moore's office about the Digital Privacy Act, and received a few unconvincing reassurances about the bill's effects which were called into question by statements the Alberta Privacy Commissioner.
At least some of the responsibility for maintaining Canada's sane, effective approach to copyright rests with the ISPs themselves. If copyright trolls come a-knockin', will they voluntarily hand over subscriber information?
The big ISPs appeared to be making some progress on protecting user privacy from warrantless government searches, but recent documents unearthed by Ottawa-based digital policy expert Michael Geist revealed that "Internet providers have tried to convince the government that they will voluntarily build surveillance capabilities into their networks."
As Geist wrote, Canada's large ISPs actually seem to be enthusiastic about building capabilities to hand over their subscribers private information to authorities whether it's a legal requirement or not. Frankly, this news doesn't doesn't inspire much confidence that ISPs will go to bat for their customers when copyright trolls threaten suits. Consider yourselves warned!
The future of copyright enforcement in Canada is up in the air, but for the moment, the only sure impact of the notice and notice regime is that a whole new set of IP addresses will begin to receive letters from rights-holders via their internet provider. These letters aren't backed up by much, but it's still a good idea to take them seriously, and keep an eye out for Bill S-4.
With the wealth of legal, innovative, and convenient methods of paying for content these days, it's also advisable to try your best to find ways to compensate creators for the works that you're enjoying. If you must insist on torrenting through 2015, beware: the letters you receive might just have consequences.
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