BY MICHAEL GEIST
The Government of Quebec released its budget yesterday featuring two Internet-related measures that are sure to attract attention and possible litigation. First, it is moving forward with plans to study a new tax on residential Internet services in order to provide support for the cultural sector. The study was recommended by the Quebec Taxation Review Committee, which is looking for new sources of revenue to support the movie, music, and book publishing industries. There are no further details on how much an ISP tax would be, though the plan would increase Internet access costs at the very time that governments are concerned with improving affordability.
Second, the government says it will be introducing a new law requiring ISPs to block access to online gambling sites. The list of blocked sites will be developed by Loto-Quebec, a government agency. The budget states:
A legislative amendment will be proposed to introduce an illegal website filtering measure. In accordance with this measure, Internet service providers will not be allowed to provide access to an online gaming and gambling website whose name is on a list of websites that are to be blocked, drawn up by Loto-Québec. This measure will be applied by the Régie des alcools, des courses et des jeux, which should have the necessary resources to fulfil its new responsibilities.
The government views this as a revenue enhancing measure because it wants to channel gamblers to its own Espacejeux, the Loto-Quebec run online gaming site. A November 2014 report found that Espacejeux was not meeting revenue targets since people were using other sites. It believes that the website blocking will increase government revenues by $13.5 million in 2016-17 and $27 million per year thereafter.
This is a remarkable and possibly illegal plan as the government seeks to censor the Internet for its own commercial gain. The plan would likely face a legal challenge, both on free speech and jurisdictional grounds, since the telecommunication regulations fall within federal jurisdiction (Quebec will counter that provinces are empowered to regulate gambling and consumer protection).
More importantly, website blocking in Canada has been exceedingly rare. Canadian Internet providers block access to some child pornography images under the Cleanfeed Canada initiative, but the blocking is not legislatively mandated and involves images that are illegal to access. Online gambling sites are not illegal to view and to legislate blocking for commercial gain sets a dangerous Canadian precedent. In fact, once blocking gaming and gambling sites is established, it is easy to envision the government requiring blocking of sites that are alleged to infringe copyright or blocking e-commerce sites that are not bilingual or do not pay provincial taxes.