Quebec is moving ahead with a plan to order Internet providers to block unlicensed gambling websites, an initiative that some say sets a dangerous precedent for censorship of the Web.
Quebec Finance Minister Carlos Leitao tabled legislation on Thursday to implement the provincial budget that was announced in March, including amendments to the province's Consumer Protection Act that direct Internet service providers (ISPs) to "block access" to a list of "unauthorized gambling sites" to be drawn up by Loto-Québec. Failure to comply could lead to a fine of up to $100,000 and twice that for subsequent offences.
The move is intended to direct online gambling revenues to the government's own website, Espacejeux, and the government said in March it expects to bring in an additional $13.5-million in 2016-17 and $27-million a year after that.
But critics say the scheme amounts to censorship, that it is technically unworkable and that the province does not have the authority to regulate the Internet in this fashion.
"It is censorship. It's blocking access to otherwise legally available sites in the interests of enhancing one's gambling monopoly," said Timothy Denton, chairman of the Canadian chapter of the Internet Society, a group that advocates keeping the Internet open and free. "A lot of countries try to do it, but we don't call them liberal democracies."
Mr. Denton wrote to Mr. Leitao in August to protest the government's plan, arguing it would be costly for ISPs to implement, that legal liabilities could drive smaller ISPs out of business and raise Internet prices, and that it would likely contravene the federal government's authority over telecommunications. The minister acknowledged receiving the letter but has not responded in substance, Mr. Denton said Friday.
"We see a lot of reasons why it shouldn't stand," said Bram Abramson, chief legal and regulatory officer for independent ISP TekSavvy Solutions Inc. "But if it does, it could have real repercussions by creating a precedent. … This is the first time any Canadian government will ever have ordered ISPs … – as a routine matter – to block content and to choose which parts of the Internet you can and cannot access."
TekSavvy has a "fair number" of customers in Quebec, he said, adding that it would be an expensive proposition to block certain website addresses only for those users. "We would have to re-engineer our network to basically segregate out Quebec and set up different servers for our Quebec users. Basically we would have to do a whole bunch of pirouettes that will cost us significant time and money for something that will be ineffective." Plus, he said, users could simply change their settings so that their ISP does not act as their DNS (domain name system) server – which matches website names with corresponding Internet protocol (IP) addresses and helps direct traffic to the right location – and the blocking would be ineffective.
Mr. Denton says virtual private networks (VPNs), which many Canadian Internet customers use to watch content not available in Canada, could also get around the blocking measures.
Nathalie Roberge, a spokeswoman for the Finance Minister, said the Quebec government simply sees this as an extension of its long-held right to regulate gambling. "These activities evolved and they are now online," she said Friday. "We have jurisdiction to regulate gambling activities and that's what we're doing with this project," she said Friday.
She said suggestions that blocking mechanisms would be futile are "hypothetical," adding "we will monitor the situation."
Ms. Roberge did not have a timeline for when the proposed legislation would be passed into law and said it would be studied and debated first.
Representatives from Cogeco Cable Inc., Videotron Ltd. and BCE Inc., which have large Internet businesses in Quebec, referred requests for comment to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association. Kurt Eby, director of regulatory affairs for the industry group, said they are still reviewing the legislation but that it raises questions about technical challenges, costs of implementation and setting a precedent for other jurisdictions.
"There are more than 70 small ISPs in Quebec. How much cost could they bear based on something like this before it becomes unfeasible or a major impact on their business?"
Mr. Eby said there would also be questions about whether the federal Telecommunications Act would permit ISPs to block certain websites.