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Globe editorial: A bad idea for ‘fixing’ Canada’s internet rules

A small handful of companies connect Canadians to the Internet, and one of them would like Ottawa to help control and restrict that access.

The nominal justification behind Bell Canada's request to have government set up a federally-administered blacklist of sites is to thwart online pirates. But the proposal, made recently at a Parliamentary committee, adds up to a frontal attack on online freedom.

There are all sorts of problems with Bell's position. Asking, say, the national broadcast regulator to keep a registry of offending sites, which internet providers could then use to shut off access, is certainly a bad idea, and possibly unconstitutional.

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What if an address is listed in error? What if overzealous service providers block legitimate content? Parties who find themselves on a blacklist must be able to challenge the designation, or avoid being saddled with it in the first place, through an independent, due process body, like a court.

The next issue involves "net neutrality" – the idea that the people who own the pipes should treat every byte equally and not restrict access to certain sources. The principle rightly discourages governments and industry from blocking or favouring sites; states that ignore it tend to be authoritarian.

Thirdly, and perhaps most worryingly, Bell is asking Ottawa to "create a criminal provision for any infringement of copyright, including facilitating and enabling piracy where it is undertaken for commercial purpose."

That would be a drastic expansion of the law. Canada already has robust anti-piracy legislation. University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist, a leading expert in online legal matters, calls the Bell proposal "the complete criminalization of copyright."

Prof. Geist argued in a recent blog post that these proposals seem to be about circumventing an open, public debate, and instead pushing the government to use trade discussions, namely the ongoing NAFTA renegotiation, "to establish copyright reforms that would be unlikely to ever garner public or policy support."

Ottawa should be wary of fixes that introduce new problems.

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