At OpenMedia, we cover a wide range of digital rights issues so we’ve really seen the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to policy proposals over the years. And this one’s a doozy: Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly is considering adding a new ISP tax to the monthly bills of Canada’s Internet subscribers.
This new tax will make Internet access even more expensive, despite the fact Canadians already pay among the highest prices in the industrialized world for this basic necessity. Fees are already so high that 44 percent of low-income households do not have a home Internet connection, leaving vast numbers of Canadians excluded from our digital endowment.
The ISP tax is the brainchild of Canada’s large publishers and broadcasters who have been using government consultations to ascertain how to fund Canadian content to push their plan. In a nutshell, they want to burden Canadian Internet users with an ISP tax in order to subsidize industries struggling to adapt to the digital age.
It’s here. Almost a year into their mandate, the Liberal government has finally launched its long awaited public consultation on Bill C-51, and a broad range of privacy and national security issues.
Speaking at the launch, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said they had already identified a limited number of areas of Bill C-51 they wanted changed and that they wanted to get Canadians’ views on how to deal with the rest of the unpopular legislation.
Bill C-51, readers may recall, is the highly controversial spying bill forced through Parliament by the previous Conservative federal government. Notably, the legislation turns the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) into what the Globe and Mail has called a “secret police force,” with little independent oversight or accountability.
Province to block gambling sites not approved by government
• Internet censorship. Website block lists. Stiff financial penalties for Internet providers who allow their customers to view sites forbidden by the government. This may the stuff of day-to-day life in authoritarian regimes, but it’s certainly not what you’d expect to see here in Canada.
Sadly, an extreme, new law recently passed in Quebec means this could soon be the reality right here at home. The province’s Bill 74 empowers Loto-Québec, a government agency that oversees gambling activities in Quebec, to draw up a list of websites that Internet providers would be forced to block, effectively giving the provincial government the ability to determine what its citizens can and can’t view online.
Internet providers that refuse to block these websites would face crippling fines of up to $100,000 – despite the fact that implementing the legislation would be “extremely complicated and extremely costly,” as Bram Abramson of independent ISP TekSavvy has warned.
This website blocking proposal is a terrible idea for a number of reasons. First, it clearly undermines Canadians’ ability to access information freely, an essential component of our Charter rights to freedom of expression.
Second, it’s an obvious breach of Net Neutrality – the rules that keep Canada’s Internet free and open. As telecom expert Michael Geist points out in a recent Toronto Star column, “Unlike other countries, which have dabbled in mandated takedowns or Internet filtering, Canada has largely defended an “open Internet… In fact, the Telecommunications Act stipulates that ‘a Canadian carrier shall not control the content or influence the meaning or purpose of telecommunications carried by it for the public.’”
Thirdly, in Canada it is the federal government, rather than provincial governments, that has jurisdiction over telecommunications so Quebec is unconstitutionally meddling with our telecommunications system. The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association have challenged this in court while the Public Interest Advocacy Centre also recently filed a formal complaint with regulators at the CRTC.
Despite all these serious concerns, Québec’s government pushed ahead and rammed Bill 74 through anyway, effectively placing its desire to maximize gambling profits ahead of Quebec citizens’ right to a free and open Internet.
This reckless decision puts all Canadians, not just Québecers, on a slippery slope toward Internet censorship. If gambling websites can be blocked, what next? As just one example, we’ve already seen how large media conglomerates are trying to use international deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership to enforce website takedowns on copyright grounds.
If we don’t put a stop to this, we could soon start to see a great deal of our favourite content disappear from the Internet for all kinds of spurious reasons. Thankfully, there’s already a big push-back from worried Canadians. A petition to Québec lawmakers launched recently by my organization, OpenMedia, and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression secured over 10,000 signatures in just a few days.
We’ll continue to work with Canadians to ensure this irresponsible legislation gets overturned. Help out by signing the petition at act.openmedia.org/bill74 (en Francais: act.openmedia.org/loi74) and we’ll keep you in the loop as things develop.
David Christopher is communications manager with OpenMedia, which works to keep the Internet open, affordable and surveillance-free. openmedia.org
• “You have used 100% of your monthly data allocation. Additional charges will apply.” There’s probably not an Internet user out there who hasn’t grimaced upon receiving a message like this from their telecom provider. Sadly, mean-spirited data caps, accompanied by extortionate overage fees, have long been one of the most reviled features of our broken telecom market.
But there’s good news: the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) recently announced a public consultation that represents the best chance in decades to finally give Canadians relief from oppressive data caps.
The consultation was sparked by concerns that some large telecom providers are unfairly privileging certain apps and services over others – for example, by enabling a customer to use one streaming service without it counting against their data cap while charging steep data fees if that customer prefers to stream from an alternative service.
That’s why my organization, OpenMedia, recently published a report revealing just how raw a deal Canadians are getting on data caps, vis a vis our international counterparts. Our research found that none of the Big Three wireless providers – Bell, Rogers and Telus – offer an unlimited wireless plan. We also found that minimum home broadband data caps in Canada, which start at just 20GB, are eight times smaller than the minimum caps on offer from major providers in the US.
This is especially important when it comes to low-income Canadians, who are priced out of plans with higher caps. A family whose data cap is just 20GB, or even 50GB, a month, is effectively shut out from important parts of the Internet.
For example, watching a program on Netflix will use between one and three GB of data per hour of streaming. Therefore, in one month it would take only 45 minutes of standard definition streaming per day for a family to exceed their 20GB data cap.
The consequences of this extend far beyond entertainment. Imagine your child not being able to access an educational video or documentary because it would breach your data cap. And all this against a backdrop where 40% of our lowest-income households cannot afford home Internet, period.
It’s also worth highlighting how telecom giants are using low caps as a way of artificially locking Canadians into expensive cable TV subscriptions. If your data cap is too low to enable you to watch what you want on the Internet, you may feel forced to buy cable TV just to watch your favourite shows, despite those same shows often being available for much cheaper online.
It’s clear that it’s time for action and Canadians agree. In the space of just seven days, over 15,000 people endorsed our open letter to the CRTC calling on them to put an end to all data caps on home broadband and to ensure every Canadian can access an unlimited wireless plan at an affordable price.
At a stroke, that would ensure that all Canadians, regardless of income level, can use the Internet in the way they see fit. Over recent years, the CRTC has shown itself increasingly willing to listen to telecom customers, rather than just to the telecom giants. So there’s every reason to believe this is a fight we can win, though we’ll need to work hard over the coming months to do so.
Following months of debate, all eyes were on Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains as he weighed whether or not to give Bell, and a tiny handful of other telecom behemoths, an effective monopoly over fibre Internet services in Canada.
In a landmark decision, Minister Bains upheld a key CRTC ruling that will ensure smaller, more affordable providers can offer fibre Internet services on a level playing field with the giant telcos.
It’s difficult to understate just how big a win this is; fibre is critically important for the future of Canada’s Internet, offering speeds up to 50 times faster than current average broadband connections. Fibre will, in short, revolutionize the Internet, opening the potential for myriad new uses in healthcare, education and cultural activities that are impossible with our current broadband speeds.
Nor did this big win come without a big fight. Almost 80,000 Canadians came together to sign petitions, write to elected officials and work hard to ensure Bell didn’t succeed in creating a monopoly over this vital service. Key public figures and institutions, including Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Toronto’s City Council, played a vital role in helping beat back Bell’s intensive lobbying efforts.
Bains’ decision was important for another reason too: it was his first big call as Canada’s new Innovation Minister and therefore widely seen as a litmus test for the future direction of federal telecom policy. And there is certainly no shortage of big challenges facing the government and the CRTC right now.
Firstly, Bell, with its seemingly insatiable appetite to crush smaller competitors has set its sights on gobbling up Manitoba’s MTS. This is unsurprising as MTS is a big part of the reason why Manitobans pay so much less than most other Canadians for wireless Internet. The Competition Bureau will have a key role to play in assessing this deal, as will Innovation Canada, which will need to approve any transfer of spectrum licences from MTS to Bell.
Secondly, Bains’ fibre Internet decision comes at a time when Canadians are already facing major challenges with affordability, as outlined in last month’s column. When four in 10 low income Canadians cannot afford home Internet because of Big Telecom’s high prices, we clearly need a coordinated approach from the CRTC and the new government to get prices down.
Thirdly, many Canadians living outside the big cities find it next to impossible to obtain a quality, high-speed Internet service, regardless of the price. Although Minister Bains has promised to invest $500 million in rural Internet, much more will be needed to ensure we don’t leave rural and northern Canadians behind.
Finally, between the failure of smaller providers, increased market concentration and apparent lack of willingness by the government to stand up for net neutrality, there’s a real danger that Canadians will be left with wireless services that are slower, more expensive and more locked-down than anywhere else in the industrialized world. Again, Big Telecom is pushing us in the wrong direction and Canadians deserve a government and CRTC willing to push back.
Rural Canadians should not suffer from slow service, sky-high prices and restrictive data caps.
“It’s too expensive.” “It’s too slow.” “I can’t get a reliable connection.” All common responses from Canadians when asked what they think about their Internet service. At OpenMedia, not a day goes by without emails, social media messages and phone calls arriving from Canadians unhappy with the state of their Internet.
That’s why our team wasn’t surprised to see the results of a recent CRTC/EKOS survey, which revealed only one in three Canadians was happy with the cost of their home Internet service and that 20% was forced to limit their Internet usage in order to keep costs down.
We finally have an opportunity to tackle these long-standing problems. In April, the CRTC held detailed hearings examining the question of whether all Canadians should be entitled to affordable, high-speed Internet.
There’s no doubt Canada has a lot of catching up to do. The CRTC’s current definition of basic services doesn’t include broadband or high-speed Internet, but does include an Internet connection “via low-speed data transmission at local rates” along with touch-tone phone service and a printed copy of the local phone book.
OpenMedia took a straightforward message to these hearings: Canadians deserve better. In our submission, we argued it’s time for the government and CRTC to recognize that most Canadians view broadband access as an essential service.
We’re not saying everyone should have a Lamborghini. We’re simply saying everyone should have access to the same highways – because in 2016, the costs of leaving people behind are just too steep for our society and our economy.
Right now, two significant groups of people are being left on the wrong side of our digital divide: Canadians living in rural and remote areas and low-income Canadians.
Rural Canadians have suffered for years from slow service, sky-high prices and restrictive data caps that make it impossible to use the Internet in ways urban Canadians take for granted. Imagine not being able to stream a Netflix show for fear of using up too much of your monthly data allotment and triggering punitive overage charges.
Broadband is as important to our present and future as the railway was to our past. If Canada is going to realize its full potential, the digital divide between north and south must be bridged to ensure people in Canada’s north can spread awareness of issues facing their communities, represent themselves in national decision-making and share their voices, culture and history with the rest of the world.
When it comes to low-income Canadians, the picture is just as bleak. A recent survey by the group ACORN revealed that over 58% of its members had to cut back on food or rent to pay their Internet bill. And the government’s own statistics confirm that more than four out of 10 of the lowest-income Canadian families do not have home Internet access, meaning tens of thousands of Canadian children are growing up in homes without this essential educational tool.
Enough is enough. CRTC faces a fork in the road. We can either continue letting our market be regulated by high-cost telecom giants or we can take action to ensure all Canadians can participate in the social and economic benefits of the Internet.
Learn more about our efforts to secure affordable, quality Internet services for all at UnblockCanada.ca
David Christopher is communications manager with OpenMedia, which works to keep the Internet open, affordable and surveillance-free. openmedia.org
• Canadians have many reasons to be concerned about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive international agreement that, if ratified, will result in restrictive new rules governing our daily lives, from how we use the Internet to how much we pay for medicine.
We already know the TPP will extend copyright terms for decades, keeping valuable cultural content out of the hands of new artists and the public. We know it will hamstring Canadian innovation; Canadian tech entrepreneurs tell us how it locks in the economic advantage US firms already enjoy in the intellectual property sector.
But the real poison pill in the TPP lies in its “investor-state dispute settlement” mechanism, or ISDS. Economists from all sides of the political spectrum have warned how the TPP’s ISDS rules would allow foreign conglomerates to challenge our domestic laws and subject Canada to multi-million dollar lawsuits.
For example, if Canada updates its copyright rules to the benefit of users, we could be sued for millions, if not billions, by powerful and unaccountable foreign conglomerates. Although ISDS is not a new idea – similar rules appear in the 20-year-old NAFTA and in the more recently completed Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) – many citizens are only now coming to understand the negative implications.
In fact, Canadian and European governments are already rethinking CETA’s ISDS rules, due to widespread concern about how they enable powerful conglomerates to undermine national sovereignty. Increasingly, people are asking why we should prioritize the profits of giant conglomerates over the right of citizens to legislate in their own self-interest – for example, by creating balanced intellectual property laws.
This raises two important points: first, if the government can go back to the drawing board with CETA, an agreement that is long completed and well into the ratification process, surely it can do the same with the TPP. But Canadians have repeatedly been told the TPP is now closed to any modification, despite the fact that the public, not to mention our current federal government, was completely excluded from the talks. This simply isn’t good enough. The government should stand up for Canadians and demand better.
Second, we’re now fully seeing just how unpopular extreme ISDS rules really are. Citizens of many industrialized nations, Germany in particular, find the terms of ISDS unacceptable and are increasingly voicing their unease. The more people learn about ISDS, the less they like it.
They’re not wrong. Looking at Canada’s own past record in ISDS proceedings, it becomes clear we’re rarely a winner. Canada has been called the most-sued nation under free trade agreements and a Canadian company has never won an ISDS case at a trade dispute panel under NAFTA.
Let me leave you with two final points about the TPP’s ISDS rules: there’s no way to challenge ISDS decisions once they’re made and if and when we lose a case, the government will not disclose how much Canada has been penalized. We could end up forfeiting billions in an opaque tribunal system, staffed by ex-lobbyists, for which there is no appeal process.
Does this sound like a fair deal to you? If not, join with thousands of your fellow Canadians and let the government know what you think at LetsTalkTPP.ca
Meghan Sali is a digital rights specialist with OpenMedia, which works to keep the Internet open, affordable and surveillance-free.
• What the heck is a StingRay? And what does it have to do with cell phone privacy? You may not be aware that a device named after an unusual sea creature poses a serious threat to your cell phone – but I assure you, it does. A growing concern in the privacy world, the surveillance device nicknamed “StingRay,” technically known as an IMSI catcher (International Mobile Subscriber Identity), is an invasive technology that threatens to undermine the privacy of anyone with a cell phone.
A small device about the size of a briefcase, StingRays are used by some law enforcement agencies to simulate cell phone towers and trick nearby mobile phones into connecting to them and exposing sensitive personal information, including your phone’s location and the recording of incoming and outgoing phone calls. That isn’t bad enough? The StingRay can also intercept your text communications and even extract the encryption keys you use to protect your data.
Incredibly invasive? Yes. But the problem with StingRays doesn’t stop there. They’re not just invasive; they’re also indiscriminate. StingRays use blanket surveillance on everyone in a given geographic location, without any clear targeting.
Are you caught up within the StingRay’s radius? Then your information is being captured. It has nothing to do with any reasonable expectation of guilt – just your geography. Just as a cell phone tower connects with all nearby phones, so does the StingRay. They can be targeted into homes, offices or parks. Wrong place, wrong time? You’re going to be included in the sweep.
This means you don’t have to be the target of an investigation to be spied on. By definition, innocent citizens are inevitably caught up in the StingRay’s dragnet. And perhaps worst of all, you won’t even know you’re a victim.
One of the challenges with StingRays is that there is little information about the full extent to which these devices are currently in use. But we do know they are being used. The NYPD recently revealed these devices have been used over 1,000 times since 2008. Canada’s own RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police and the Vancouver Police Department have all refused to answer requests for information on the subject.
Worse yet, we don’t know how this information is being used, how long it’s stored and what protections are in place to ensure it is not misused. As we increasingly find ourselves under more and more surveillance, with our privacy under attack from what feels like all sides, is all lost? No. We don’t yet know how common StingRay usage is in Canada and we still have a chance to stop this.
Transparency is the first step. We need to know if, when and where these technologies are in use, to be able to demand accountability of our law enforcement agencies. We need to understand the facts to ensure our right to privacy is being protected and that authorities are being held accountable for this type of surveillance.
That’s why at OpenMedia, we’re intervening alongside a number of other pro-privacy organizations at an upcoming case to be heard by the BC Privacy Commissioner. We’re asking the Commissioner to rule that police must come clean about whether, and how often, they use these spying devices. The case will be heard later this month and you can check out our website at openmedia.org or follow us on Facebook for latest developments.
Laura Tribe is Digital Rights Specialist for OpenMedia, a community-based organization that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet
• When David Fullagar, Netflix vice president of Content Delivery Architecture, announced last week the company would be cracking down on users who employ privacy tools while watching Netflix, you could practically hear the groans reverberate across the globe.
The bombshell was dropped only a week after Netflix launched service in 130 additional countries, bringing the total to a whopping 190 countries and transforming the web giant into the United Nations of online streaming.
It may not be immediately obvious to many, but Netflix’s commitment to freeze out customers who choose to use VPNs (virtual private networks) – an increasingly popular, secure way to connect to the Internet and help protect your activities from prying eyes – is really the effect of lobbying on behalf of media giants who license content.
The technology behind VPNs is one that alters the IP address of the user, such that it becomes impossible to tell where the traffic is really coming from. In so doing, however, it also allows Netflix customers to bypass geo-restricted content and, in some cases, even to choose the country they’d like to route their traffic through, giving them access to content “outside their region.” This enrages licence-holders, as locking users into a limited catalogue enables them to continue to negotiate lucrative country-by-country licences and maximize profits.
What is ignored in this debate, however, is that VPN use is perfectly legal and by far the most user-friendly way for Internet users to encrypt their browsing traffic and ensure they have a private, secure connection. What does it say about a Web company when it blocks the use of privacy software that has become increasingly necessary in today’s era of mass surveillance and big data mining?
Additionally, the use of VPNs protects users from some of the more predatory market practices we know are taking place with increasing frequency. Take for example the case from 2014 when Verizon was caught throttling Netflix or more recently when T-Mobile was caught throttling all video traffic.
In these cases, using internet privacy tools to encrypt traffic prevents ISPs from seeing what a user is doing, thus making it impossible for ISPs to selectively slow down your viewing experience. This is a particularly salient point for people living in countries without mandated Net Neutrality rules, but also for us here in Canada who have legal protections, but routinely see them violated.
When all is told, Netflix’s paying customers should be able to both watch Netflix and protect their privacy. And because there is no way for Netflix to determine whether VPN users are simply employing the service to get around geo-restrictions, they should err on the side of their customers and refuse to block people who use VPNs.
Hopefully, in time and with the support of their users, Netflix will be able to push back against media giants who are taking a 20th century approach to a 21st century technology. After all, global licencing would solve this problem to everyone’s satisfaction and we know that Netflix itself hopes one day to be able to offer the same content to all customers.
• What a year 2015 has been! In the space of just 12 months, with the support of our amazing community and partners around the globe, OpenMedia fought to ensure people everywhere have affordable access to an Internet that is surveillance and censorship-free.
Highlights include winning a historic fight at the U.S. FCC for Net Neutrality, pushing back hard against an EU plan to copyright “snippets” and helping rally hundreds of thousands against C-51, Canada’s reckless surveillance bill.
Looking ahead, one thing is clear: challenges to our digital rights are set to intensify. Out-of-touch government bureaucracies and unaccountable conglomerates threaten to further undermine the free and open Internet we love.
Here are five big challenges we will face in 2016:
1. The final text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership revealed a serious threat to Internet freedom. It will force participating nations to import draconian US-style copyright rules, while also undermining data privacy, robbing the public domain and inducing Internet providers to censor websites. With TPP members due to sign the deal on February 4, we’ll need to ramp up the public pressure against what amounts to an Internet censorship plan. Speak out at StopTheSecrecy.net
2. In Canada, the unpopular Bill C-51 proved to be one of the most controversial issues in the recent federal election. With over 300,000 speaking up against it, pressure is intensifying on the new Liberal government to repeal the bill. That’s why we’re asking Prime Minister Trudeau to sit down with OpenMedia, privacy experts and civic society representatives to discuss how best to address this. Join this call at KillC51.ca
3. The European Commission’s recently released copyright framework threatens to place “snippets” – the brief explanatory extracts that often accompany a hyperlink – under copyright, a proposal that would severely restrict our ability to access and share information online. The Commission will introduce legislation within the next six months and we’ll need to ensure Internet users’ voices get heard, especially at the European Parliament, which will need to approve any legislation. Learn more at SaveTheLink.org
4. The future of affordability and choice in Canada’s Internet sector is on the line. Telecom giant Bell is trying to overturn hard-won customer choice rules that will ensure Canadians can obtain ultra-fast fibre Internet from indie ISPs. As soon as we heard about Bell’s plan, the OpenMedia community swung into action to tell the new government to reject Bell’s price-gouging scheme. We’ve just submitted a hard-hitting, in-depth policy brief to the federal government, but we’ll need to keep up the pressure to ensure they listen. Add your voice Act.OpenMedia.org/Emergency
5. 2015 will perhaps best be remembered as the year pro-Internet advocates secured strong Net Neutrality rules at the FCC that prohibited attempts by telecom conglomerates to consign some of our favourite websites to an Internet slow lane. Sadly, telecom giants haven’t let up in their attempts to overturn these important customer protections. They’ve gone to court and are even trying to strong-arm Congress into undermining the rules. We’ll need to stay vigilant to ensure the new rules are safeguarded. Learn more at StopTheSlowdown.net
Yup, it’s going to be a busy year! Keep in touch with all the latest at OpenMedia.org
David Christopher is the communications manager for OpenMedia, a community-based organization that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet.