Quebec gambling act sparks net neutrality concerns at CRTC

An application to challenge an element of the Quebec Budget Act that would ban certain online gambling sites is leading Canada’s telecom regulator to deliberate on an essential question: how much power should corporations and the government have over content Canadians access via the web?

Section 12 of the Quebec Budget Act (otherwise known by the slightly long-winded title of: An Act respecting mainly the implementation of certain provisions of the Budget Speech of 26 March 2015), amends Quebec’s Consumer Protection Act in order to require that telecoms in the province block access to certain online gambling sites as determined by Loto-Quebec.

While it’s not yet in operation, the act has already been passed and assented to — though both the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) would like to see it stopped.

Is the concept unconstitutional?

Both groups are challenging Section 12 on constitutional grounds, with PIAC leading the charge. PIAC also applied to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for help, appealing to section 36 of the Telecommunications Act, which states “Except where the Commission approves otherwise, a Canadian carrier shall not control the content or influence the meaning or purpose of telecommunications carried by it for the public.”

In a “preliminary view” sent out in September 2016, the Commission backed up PIAC, expressing its opinion that the Telecommunications Act “prohibits the blocking by Canadian carriers of access by end-users to specific websites on the Internet without prior Commission approval, whether or not such blocking was the result of an Internet traffic management practice.”

Permission to implement a block system, the CRTC goes on to state, could only be given by the CRTC itself. The commission then solicited, and received, comments on the subject from the Attorney General of Quebec, advocacy group OpenMedia, Shaw, TekSavvy and Telus, amongst other organizations.

Current decisions

Today, December 9th, the CRTC suspended consideration of PIAC’s application while the constitutional issues with Section 12 are brought before the courts, but also confirms its preliminary view regarding the matter — essentially stating that under the Telecommunications Act, the idea of blocking access to certain sites is a non-starter.

While OpenMedia, TekSavvy, PIAC and the Canadian Network Operator’s Consortium supported this confirmation, it was not held in such high regard by the Attorney General of Quebec, which cautioned that an interpretation of Section 36 was “premature.”

PIAC, which didn’t directly oppose the suspensions of its application, noted that the CRTC should be open to receiving updates on the court case in order to gauge when or if the application needed further consideration.

While this case is specific to Quebec, the questions it raises have broad implications for internet censorship and raise questions about the ethics of allowing certain potentially harmful websites to exist in the interest of a truly free and open internet.

Update 09/12/16: This article initially stated that CRTC backed up both PIAC and CWTA. In fact, the CRTC backed up PIAC, while the CWTA’s argument is based more on jurisdiction than net neutrality. Thanks to Jean-Francois Mezei for the correction.

Related: CRTC nixes wholesale internet rates proposed by big Canadian carriers