VPN Use Under Threat in Canada

Copyright law and issues around website blocking, which could include the use of VPNs, is coming under the microscope in Canada once again following the recent change in government.

Canadian Heritage minister Melanie Joly has been in discussions around copyright laws and the use of VPNs to access geo-restricted content, according to Michael Geist, writing in the Toronto Star this week.

Geist, an academic from the University of Ottawa, is a regular commentator and critic of copyright and internet laws both in Canada and internationally. He writes that the “hybrid legal/illegal” aspect of accessing content like the US version of Netflix has become a cause for concern among officials.

“Hybrid” refers to a somewhat legal grey area. A VPN user may use the software to access the US Netflix. They are paying for the subscription. However services like Netflix have licensing agreements in place with TV and film studios for each region. This has given birth to the term “Netflix pirate”.

This isn’t the first time that Canadian officials or companies have tussled with VPNs. In March, an executive from Rogers, one of the country’s largest ISPs, suggested a ban on VPNs. Meanwhile in June, the president of Bell Media, another large nationwide ISP, said that using VPNs to access geo-blocked content was “unacceptable” and equated to stealing.

Geist points out that current copyright laws are rather toothless when it comes to preventing VPN use in this manner, which could persuade lawmakers to consider new legislation.

Does this mean a ban on VPNs? And could it even be enforceable? That all remains up in the air.

“Much like new legal rules for VPN use, new laws on accessing foreign streaming services would be complicated and difficult to enforce,” says Geist.

“With millions of Canadian Netflix users, there is no possibility of targeting individuals. The only real possibility is take action against the streaming services themselves. Canada already has tough laws targeting websites that enable infringement, but so-called hybrid services are a business issue for rights holders rather than a matter for copyright reform.”

Another possible action is website blocking but blocking a service like Netflix isn’t exactly realistic.

“If government officials envision adding VPN usage, access to U.S. Netflix, and website blocking to the list of issues, copyright could emerge as one of the government’s most difficult and controversial issues,” adds Geist.