What was FairPlay Canada really trying to accomplish?

Now that the CRTC has effectively stalled the website-blocking application, it's worth asking what FairPlay was trying to accomplish in the first place

fairplay canada

When a Bell Media-led coalition — dubbed ‘FairPlay Canada’ — formally submitted an application to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to create an independent agency that would block access to websites found to infringe copyright, digital rights advocates across the country were equal parts concerned and perplexed.

Groups voiced concerns about net neutrality and censorship, but they also pointed out that the Commission had, and still has, very little jurisdiction over the Copyright Act — the primary piece of legislation responsible for governing the protection of copyright and intellectual property in Canada.

“…numerous legal provisions and tools to help copyright owners protect their intellectual property…” — CRTC statement to MobileSyrup

Before FairPlay Canada formally revealed its intentions to the public — when crowdfunded website Canadaland was one of the only publications with exclusive news about the coalition’s existence and its goals — the CRTC even told MobileSyrup that Canada’s copyright system already has “numerous legal provisions and tools to help copyright owners protect their intellectual property, both online and in the physical realm.”

So when the CRTC used jurisdictional grounds to deny FairPlay Canada’s website blocking application on October 2nd, 2018, consumer rights advocates weren’t entirely surprised by the Commission’s decision to defer ruling on copyright matters.

That being said, now that FairPlay Canada’s website-blocking application has been temporarily put to rest, it’s important to ask a deceptively simple question: What was FairPlay Canada really trying to accomplish?

Simple question, complicated answer

According to a January 29th, 2018 media release, FairPlay Canada — a coalition comprised of approximately 25 Canadian media organizations, including Bell Media, Rogers Media, Cogeco and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) — simply wanted the CRTC to establish a body called the ‘Internet Piracy Review Agency’ (IPRA).

IPRA would “assist [the CRTC] in identifying websites blatantly engaged in content theft,” while the CRTC would require Canadian internet service providers “to take measures to prevent such sites from reaching Canadians,” according to FairPlay Canada.

In short, FairPlay wanted to establish a mechanism that would allow media organizations to block access to websites that infringe copyright in Canada.

“…raising it in the public forum does raise it with government” — Monica Auer, FRPC

However, that question of purpose is complicated by the aforementioned fact that the CRTC isn’t responsible for governing the Copyright Act.

To Monica Auer — the Forum for Research and Policy in Communications’ executive director — FairPlay Canada’s ultimate goal may have been to simply raise the spectre of copyright infringement in a public forum.

“I think raising it in the public forum does raise it with government,” explained Auer, in a phone call with MobileSyrup.

“If you’re an advocate for one side of an issue or another side or another side after that and you walk into an MP’s office and you say we have this serious problem, presumably, some members may not view it as a serious problem until it receives a little more media attention.”

For John Lawford — the Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s executive director and general counsel — FairPlay’s decision to raise copyright issues with the CRTC may have something to do with conflict of interest concerns.

“…tempting to use their gatekeeper power to help out their business interest…” — John Lawford, PIAC

“It might have been that the leaders of this effort are otherwise in a conflict of interest position where they are controlling copyrights or making money off copyright and also controlling aspects of access to the network,” explained Lawford, in a phone call with MobileSyrup.

FairPlay Canada may have been comprised of media organizations, but companies like Bell Media and Rogers Media have direct ties to telecom service providers.

Rogers Media is owned by telecom giant Rogers Communications, while FairPlay Canada leader Bell Media is owned by BCE Inc., the parent company responsible for national telecom Bell Canada.

“[It might have been] tempting to use their gatekeeper power to help out their business interests on their broadcasting side with their telecom side,” speculated Lawford.

“It’s a risk of allowing vertical integration and telecom companies to also own and control content.”

Welcome (and temporary) reprieve

While the CRTC’s application denial may have stalled FairPlay Canada’s website-blocking plans, net neutrality advocates shouldn’t let out a sigh of relief just yet.

As Lawford told MobileSyrup, if FairPlay Canada wants to continue championing its website-blocking agenda, the federal government’s Copyright Act review is the perfect forum to voice those concerns.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology (INDU) began the first phase of the Copyright Act review in April 2018.

The goal is to meet with groups across Canada’s publishing, software, visual arts and telecommunications sectors to review Canada’s existing copyright framework.

“I don’t expect it to die” — John Lawford

In an email to MobileSyrup, the Asian Television Network’s (ATN) chairman and CEO Shan Chandrasekar directly acknowledged the Copyright Act review as another avenue to advocate FairPlay Canada’s goals.

“With the CRTC shifting the issue to Parliament, we look forward to working with the federal government to strengthen legal protections for content creators in its review of the Copyright Act,” wrote Chandrasekar, in his statement.

“Modernizing existing criminal provisions in the Act and significantly enhancing copyright enforcement are what’s needed to help protect artists, producers and other developers of Canadian content from piracy.”

INDU expects to complete all three phases of the Copyright Act review by early 2019.

“I don’t expect it to die,” said Lawford. “I expect to do it all over again with the Copyright Act review.”