Monday June 29,2015 : A DANGEROUS PRECEDENT IF QUEBEC BLOCKS INTERNET GAMBLING SITES
Prominent legal expert warns that this sort of provincial overreach can have dangerous national consequences.
In an op-ed article in the Toronto Star this weekend, prominent Canadian legal expert Michael Geist warns on the dangers of allowing provinces like Quebec to introduce internet blocking measures unchallenged.
Geist, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, questions the motives for such a move, suggesting that the provincial government's ISP-blocking intentions may be interfering with the freedom of the internet in order to boost business for its own online gambling business at Espacejeux, operated by Loto-Québec under an exclusive licence.
Espacejeux revenues have been below expectations as Quebecoise turn to more attractive offers from outside competitors; a November 2014 review suggested that website blocking could increase government revenues by $13.5 million in 2016-17 and $27 million per year thereafter.
But there are dangers in taking such a restrictive course.
"Canadians have generally been spared website-blocking initiatives, due in part to the Telecommunications Act, which prohibits carriers from controlling ‘the content or influence the meaning or purpose of telecommunications carried by it for the public.’ That rule means that Internet providers are effectively prohibited from unilaterally blocking content," Geist observes.
"But earlier this year, the Government of Quebec in its budget announced plans to require Internet providers to block access to online gambling sites. The list of blocked sites will be developed by Loto-Québec, a government agency."
Geist points out that in perpetuating the single operator strategy in Quebec the provincial government is shrugging off the advice of its own working group on online gambling.
This group studied the state of online gambling in the province and concluded that the best approach was not to block access to other sites, but rather to invite them all into the market, subject to their ability to meet regulatory requirements.
Geist quotes the Working Group's key recommendation:
“The Working Group believes that in order to control the online gambling market, protect consumers and generate revenues for the government, the best solution for the government is to establish clear rules and open up the online gambling market to private operators. In fact, the best solution is to establish an online gambling licensing system.”
If the Quebec government presses ahead with its blocking plans as outlined in the budget it could face legal challenges, Geist warns, noting that public and corporate reaction to the budget announcement of the intention to block has thus far been surprisingly muted.
He argues that such a legal challenge could be based both on free speech and jurisdictional grounds, since the federal Canadian government has exclusive jurisdiction over telecommunications regulation.
Geist warns that allowing internet blocking in a particular industry can be the start of a slippery slope to increasing censorship, commenting:
"Once blocking Internet content is established, it is easy to envision governments moving down a slippery slope, requiring the blocking of sites that are alleged to infringe on copyright, or blocking e-commerce sites that are not bilingual or do not pay provincial taxes.
"If that happened, the open Internet in Canada would be placed at risk of unprecedented government intervention into how Internet providers manage their networks and what sites Canadians are able to access."