Quebec plans to order Internet providers to block unlicensed gambling websites that sap its revenues, raising questions about government interference with the Web for financial gain.
In its budget released Thursday, the province said it plans to propose new legislation that would compel Internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to a list of gambling websites drawn up by Loto-Québec.
The government states its aim is to direct revenues to its own gambling website, Espacejeux, noting Loto-Québec's revenues have fallen in recent years and stating, "it is only the online gaming market that has growth prospects."
It estimates the "illegal website filtering measure" – along with efforts to attract more players to Espacejeux through advertising and partnering with private operators – will generate $13.5-million in 2016-17 and $27-million per year after that.
Bram Abramson, chief legal and regulatory officer for independent ISP TekSavvy Solutions Inc., said the proposed legislation raises concerns about the neutral role of Internet providers.
"ISPs are intermediaries and we do what we do best when we act a little bit like utilities: We provide access to the Internet. We should not be put in a position of picking and choosing what people have access to," he said in an interview Friday. TekSavvy has about 250,000 subscribers and Quebec is the company's second-largest market after Ontario.
"We would want the government to think very, very carefully before taking this unprecedented move, which I have no doubt would be treated with great trepidation by consumers and by everyone who's interested in the free flow of information," Mr. Abramson added.
Quebec said the website blocking measure is also aimed at improving public health because "illegal websites do not apply the same responsible gaming rules as Espacejeux. They thus pose a risk to the population, especially young people."
But critics said the measure, which is included in a section of the budget on fighting tax evasion, is directly aimed at increasing government revenues.
"It's not about blocking an alleged illegal activity, it's about protecting [Loto-Québec's] own monopoly," said Allen Mendelsohn, a Montreal Internet lawyer. "I find that somewhat disturbing to be honest with you."
Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, called the move a "remarkable and possibly illegal plan as the government seeks to censor the Internet for its own commercial gain."
He predicted Quebec could face a legal challenge on the grounds of free speech as well as jurisdiction. Telecommunications regulation is the federal government's purview, though he noted Quebec might assert this falls under consumer protection or gambling.
Mr. Geist said that although Canadian ISPs block access to some child pornography images under an initiative that is not legislatively mandated, "website blocking in Canada has been exceedingly rare," adding, "Online gambling sites are not illegal to view and to legislate blocking for commercial gain sets a dangerous Canadian precedent."
In an interview Friday, Quebec Finance Minister Carlos Leitao said the measures are not in place yet but he believes implementing them is "perfectly feasible."
"This applies to gambling sites, unlicensed gambling sites," the minister said. "So I don't think there's an issue of censorship."
He acknowledged that jurisdiction was a grey area, noting that while the federal government has control over the telecom industry, Quebec has jurisdiction over other related areas. He said that's something that needs to be examined with federal officials.
Loto-Québec has been taking in significantly less revenue than expected in recent years, in part, Mr. Leitao said, because it faces rival gambling sites that don't follow the same rules it does such as enforcing minimum player ages.
"Unlicensed sites obviously don't have to follow those same guidelines so they have a huge competitive advantage," the minister said. "What we're saying is, 'If you want to play the game, everybody has to follow the same rules.'"
Representatives for Cogeco Cable Inc., Videotron Ltd. and BCE Inc. – all of which have significant Internet businesses in Quebec – said they are still analyzing the website blocking proposal and it was too soon for them to comment.
Government attempts to limit what users see on the Internet have come under fire in the past. In 2012, the United States killed two bills aimed at curbing piracy and copyright violations – the Stop Online Piracy Act and the and the Protect IP Act – after massive online protests. Critics said the legislation, which was designed to shut down access to foreign websites that sell stolen content or goods, would undermine free speech and impede the functioning of the Internet.
The Quebec budget also contains a recommendation that the government study the possibility of "levying a tax on residential Internet services in order to support the cultural sector."
Mr. Abramson said TekSavvy is not opposed to supporting culture but questioned whether that societal choice should be shifted to ISP users through such a tax.
He noted that the Public Interest Advocacy Centre released a report this week on the need for affordability in communications services, which recognized that Internet service is "a lifeline and it is used not just for culture but for everything in our society."
Mr. Mendelsohn, on the other hand, said while no one wants to pay more taxes, he was not necessarily opposed to the move.
"If this is a way to get additional revenue streams to promote Quebec culture, I'm not sure that's necessarily a bad thing."