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Bell Canada Calls For Piracy Crackdown, Tax On Netflix (But Not CraveTV)

The telecom’s proposals would risk starting a trade war with the U.S., a University of Ottawa professor is warning.
A Bell Canada office in Ottawa, Nov. 26, 2008.
A Bell Canada office in Ottawa, Nov. 26, 2008.

A prominent expert in Canadian digital law is warning that Canada could find itself in a trade war with the U.S. if it applied the telecom policies that Bell Canada is advocating.

That’s just one of many problems that Michael Geist, the Canada chair in e-Commerce and Internet Law at the University of Ottawa, sees with Bell’s recent submission to a committee looking at overhauling Canada’s telecom laws.

“The running theme from Bell is a simple one: regulate others, but not us,” Geist wrote in a blog post.

He obtained Bell’s submission through an access to information request. The federal review panel hasn’t made submissions publicly available. Some of them are available on the website of the Forum for Research and Policy in Communications.

Watch: Hollywood studio to sue thousands of Canadians for piracy. Story continues below.

Among the issues Geist highlights is Bell’s assertion that the law “should be amended … to create a system that disables access in Canada to sites that are blatantly, structurally or overwhelmingly engaged in content theft.”

Bell is also calling for a new law that would make it a crime to “operate, advertise, supply or sell or offer to sell” an unauthorized streaming service. Such a law would mean “widespread criminalization of anyone even tangentially associated with unauthorized online video streaming,” Geist wrote.

Bell notes that its efforts to combat privacy are “actively supported by an unprecedented coalition of creators, labour groups, broadcasters, exhibitors, cultural institutions and others.”

That was the case with Bell’s FairPlay campaign, an effort Bell launched in 2017 to convince the CRTC to create a blacklist of websites engaged in piracy. That effort got the support of numerous groups including labour unions Actra and Unifor, as well as Cineplex and the CBC. The CRTC rejected the FairPlay proposal last year.

Bell Canada is also calling for streaming services to start paying for the creation of Canadian content, but not all streaming services. The CanCon rule would apply only to Canadian streaming services that have at least $300 million in streaming revenue, or foreign streaming companies with at least $1 billion in global revenue.

This would mean that international streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Video, and the planned Disney streaming service, would be required to pay for CanCon, while Bell’s own CraveTV would not, Geist says.

He believes the policy would risk a trade war with the U.S. under the USMCA. While Canada has special trade exemptions for cultural industries, the U.S. would still be able to retaliate by costing Canadian companies as much extra in the U.S. as U.S. companies pay in Canada.

“In other words, get ready for hundreds of millions in new tariffs against Canada if the Bell proposal were to be adopted,” Geist wrote.

Large new payments into CanCon fund

Additionally, these services would be required to pay 20 per cent of their revenue into CanCon, or four times as much as the 5 per cent of revenue Canadian cable and satellite providers currently pay into the Canadian Media Fund. These streaming services would not be eligible to use money from the fund to pay for their own Canadian productions.

Geist says this plan completely ignores the fact that streaming services already spend more on English-language Canadian scripted programming than Canada’s own broadcasters.

“The running theme from Bell is a simple one: regulate others, but not us.”

- Michael Geist

Bell’s approach stands in contrast to that of Shaw Communications, whose submission Geist also obtained. Shaw opposed the expansion of CanCon rules to Netflix and other streaming services, and advised against adapting yesterday’s TV broadcasting regulations to streaming TV.

Doing that “will likely lead to issues of enforcement as well as inconsistent and unsatisfactory results,” Geist quoted Shaw’s submission as stating. Instead, the company backs the idea of “discoverability” ― requiring streaming services to display Canadian content prominently to their subscribers.

Among the telcos, “Bell really stands alone” when it comes to these types of proposals, Geist wrote in an email to HuffPost Canada. All the telcos take a similar approach when it comes to resisting greater wireless competition, but Bell’s broadcast ideas “are unique within what I’ve seen,” he added.

Bell Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment from HuffPost Canada.

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