New Mandate in Quebec a Threat to Canadian Online Gambling

FleurdelysChipsThe Quebec government who had a clear legal mandate for online activity, specifically to avoid blocking sites, instead earlier this month introduced unprecedented legislation that would force Internet providers to block content.

The unwritten rule thus far when it comes to the Internet in Canada, is “thou shall not block.”

Canadian Internet service providers will have to face a large range of new policies that have many implications for accessing many types content. This includes net neutrality rules and the copyright notice-and-notice system. In almost all and virtual evry case, blocking or removing content is simply not done by anyone. The only and most valiant exception is a limited, private sector led initiative to block child pornography images.

In comparison to other countries who have experimented with mandates of takedowns or Internet filtering, Canada has pretty much defended an “open Internet.” That means almost 100% freedom.

Legally, Canadian does not stipulate nor mandate that Internet providers take down content because of unproven allegations of copyright infringement, which would allow them to alter or change content of they so chose.

The Telecommunications Act of Canada clearly states that “a Canadian carrier shall not control the content or influence the meaning or purpose of telecommunications carried by it for the public.”

Yet even with a clear legal mandate that looks to avoid blocking, in early November the Quebec government introduced unprecedented legislation that will legislate Internet providers to engage in content blocking. The new bill is made to bascially target unlicensed online gambling, many experts agree that this is an act passed as part of the government’s efforts to increase revenues from its own online gambling service. They are looking to bolster their won products which so far have failed to meet projected quotas and expectations.

The provisions were outlined in an omnibus bill which implemented elements of the government’s spring budget, and that included a promise to set up website blocking requirements.

The bill outlines that “an Internet service provider may not give access to an online gambling site whose operation is not authorized under Quebec law.” And now the Quebec government’s lottery commission will come up with a list of banned websites to start banning.

In accordance with Canadian law, Internet providers will have to block access to the banned sites within 30 days. If they don’t comply with the new law they could face fines of up to $100,000 CAD, with higher penalties for those who repeatedly offend.

Critics are calling it censorship, that it is technically unfeasible, and that the province does not have the rightful authority to regulate the Internet in any capacity whatsoever.

“It is censorship. It’s blocking access to otherwise legally available sites in the interests of enhancing one’s gambling monopoly,” said Timothy Denton, chairman of the Canadian chapter of the Internet Society, a group that advocates keeping the Internet open and free. “A lot of countries try to do it, but we don’t call them liberal democracies.”

This initiative will probably end up before the courts. But that will be a process since the Canadian constitution grants exclusive jurisdiction over telecommunications to the federal government. And the hope from the industry is, that like times before when the Quebec government unsuccessfully challenged the jurisdictional issue in the past, it will fail this time too.

Quebec will probably argue that website blocking is an issue of consumer protection, that is for the provinces to resolve, and the new rules will be placed in Quebec’s consumer protection law. But in essence, blocking these sites has little to do with protecting consumers than creating their own in province monopoly.

At first, When the measure was announced in the provincial budget, the government revealed that its own site was not meeting revenue targets. It stated that website blocking could very likely generate millions in additional revenue for the province. It’s a strong move when the government’s own working group on online gambling only recommended a licensing system for all the external gambling sites instead of blocking outright, as the best way of protecting local consumers.

Many experts believe that if the jurisdictional issues fail to convince the courts, a free speech challenge will. Legal experts would agree that a government-mandated blocking signifies a limit on the fundamental freedoms found in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Despite those rights not being absolute, Quebec will have a tough time arguing that the blocking is a reasonable limitation, when there are so many other alternatives to ‘protect’ consumers that do not limit speech and might even be more effective in protecting public interests.

So far, the no-blocking mentality has served Canadians online users and gamblers well, because they are ensured universal access to the legal content of their choice. If the bill actually becomes law, Internet providers, civil liberties groups and consumer advocates will have to come together and challenge what could be an affront to their virtual freedoms.

The problem with Quebec seeking to undo the first law of the Canadian Internet, means it opens the door to other issues and reasons for blocking content, such as targeting websites that do not meet language requirements of Quebec, or are alleged to contain infringing content. Opening these floodgates mean the rabbit cannot be put back in the hat, so it will be interesting to see how this legal matter develops in Canada and how it affects online gambling and gaming.