BY MICHAEL GEIST
The Government of Quebec has introduced new legislation that requires Internet service providers to block access to unlicensed online gambling sites. The provisions are contained in an omnibus bill implementing elements of the government’s spring budget, which included a promise to establish website blocking requirements. The bill provides that “an Internet service provider may not give access to an online gambling site whose operation is not authorized under Québec law.” The government’s lottery commission will establish the list of banned websites:
“The Société des loteries du Québec shall oversee the accessibility of online gambling. It shall draw up a list of unauthorized online gambling sites and provide the list to the Régie des alcools, des courses et des jeux, which shall send it to Internet service providers by registered mail.“
According to the law:
“An Internet service provider that receives the list of unauthorized online gambling sites in accordance with section 260.35 shall, within 30 days after receiving the list, block access to those sites.“
The mandated blocking legislation is unprecedented in Canada and will surely be subject to legal challenge. To date, the federal government has worked to support a private sector initiative to block access to child pornography images, but the law on child pornography (which bans viewing such materials) is different from this form of website blocking.
As I noted earlier this year, the Quebec government apparently views this initiative as a revenue enhancing measure because it wants to direct gamblers to its own Espacejeux, the Loto-Québec run online gaming site. A November 2014 report found that Espacejeux was not meeting revenue targets since people were using other sites. The government believes that the website blocking will increase government revenues by $13.5 million in 2016-17 and $27 million per year thereafter.
The Quebec decision is particularly surprising given recommendations from its own working group on online gambling. It 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. The 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.
Rather than opening the market though, Quebec is instead seeking to censor the Internet for its own commercial gain by ordering Internet providers to block access to any unregulated sites. The plan is likely face a legal challenge, both on free speech and jurisdictional grounds, since the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over telecommunications regulation.
Moreover, the Quebec legislation moves Canada down a slippery slope, since if this becomes law, it is easier to envision governments requiring the blocking of sites that are alleged to infringe copyright or blocking e-commerce sites that are not bilingual or do not pay provincial taxes. If that happens, 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.