A group of telecom and media companies wants to make sure internet users can't visit any websites that deal in pirated content. But advocates for an open internet say the industry group's proposal would chip away at net neutrality and potentially be the first step toward widespread online censorship.
This week, a group of Canadian media companies called on the CRTC — Canada's media and telecom regulator — to create a new agency that would compile a list of websites "blatantly engaged in content theft" and then force internet service providers to block access to those sites.
The proposal comes from FairPlay Canada, an umbrella group including some of the largest media companies and telecoms in the country such as Bell, Rogers, and CBC. The group also includes media unions and artist groups.
"The jobs of hundreds of thousands of Canadians who work in the creative sector are at risk as a result of increasing online piracy, from songwriters and set builders to makeup artists and local news reporters," FairPlay Canada said in a news release.
The blacklist proposal has drawn fierce criticism from some activists and scholars.
"It's a slippery slope to censorship and corporations being able to block content they don't like," said Katy Anderson, digital rights specialist with OpenMedia, a nonprofit group that advocates for an open internet.
She said any system that blocks access to parts of the internet would be open to abuse, and that while piracy is a problem, the blacklist proposal is "like killing a mosquito with a machine gun."
Anderson pointed to services like Spotify and Apple Music, which offer a cheap and easy way for people to get content they might have pirated in the past, as a model for how to respond to piracy.
"We've been used to thinking that all content should be treated equally online. Once you start to erode that, and you start to put in exceptions for all the different ways we're going to treat different content online, the whole idea of net neutrality starts to fade away," she said.
Copyright lawyer Barry Sookman, however, called the net neutrality argument a red herring.
"Net neutrality doesn't prohibit blocking of illegal materials," Sookman said.
Sookman said the proposal has "a lot of protections" built in to make sure only the most clearly criminal websites get blocked, and only after being investigated by the new independent agency.
"This is not going after users or individuals. It solely orders against pirate sites," he said. "In fact, there's not even any kind of claim for damages. It's really just an order that ISPs block these notoriously bad sites."
The blacklist idea has gotten a frosty reception from many internet users so far. On Twitter, many people have called it an attempt by corporate interests to censor what they don't like.
University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, an expert on internet governance, said Canada already has some of the toughest anti-piracy laws in the world, making it unclear why a new agency is needed.
He also said it's noteworthy that the United States, which is widely viewed as the most aggressive country in terms of copyright enforcement, doesn't have anything like the website blacklist proposed by FairPlay Canada.
"The government and the CRTC should not hesitate to firmly reject the website blocking plan as a disproportionate, unconstitutional proposal sorely lacking in due process that is inconsistent with the current communications law framework," Geist said.
The CRTC told BuzzFeed Canada it has received the FairPlay Canada proposal but has no formal position on it so far.
Ishmael Daro is a social news editor for BuzzFeed and is based in Toronto.
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