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Connecting the World 13 July 2016

Quebec to require ISPs to block websites

Mark Buell
By Mark BuellChief Regional Bureau Director, North America

The provincial government in Quebec recently passed legislation that will require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access, at the Domain Name System (DNS) level, to gambling websites that originate outside its borders.

Known as DNS blocking, this practice is not normally seen in highly-developed democracies like Canada (though it’s certainly not unheard of). It forms part of China’s Great Firewall, and was used during the Arab Spring to limit communications between protestors. I think Canadian legal scholar Michael Geist said it best when he wrote that DNS blocking violates the first rule of the Internet in Canada: “thou shall not block.”

Simply put, DNS blocking is an affront to the principles of a free and open Internet. It erodes the unified nature of the global Internet and interferes with with cross-border data flows. Putting aside the technical and security issues inherent to the practice (discussed here, and in this 2012 paper from ISOC), it’s fraught with potential negative consequences, and fundamentally isn’t very effective.

Under the new legislation, known as Bill 74, Loto Quebec will provide a list of offending sites to ISPs. Those ISPs will then be legally bound to block those sites within the province. If they don’t comply, they could face stiff fines – up to $100,000.

While the provincial government now says Bill 74 is meant to protect consumers, their motivations are possibly less altruistic. In Canada, most gambling activities are run by provincial government-controlled monopolies. Like many other businesses, Loto Quebec has been experiencing increased competition from online gambling sites. As a result, it has not been meeting its revenue targets. When the legislation was first proposed, it was framed as a way to increase the corporation’s revenue. Take away the competition, the theory goes, and consumers will have to use your service.

Only the reality is very different. The legislation will, in all likelihood, create a financial burden for both Loto Quebec and ISPs, and yet prove itself to be ineffective. Blocking a website at the DNS level does nothing to remove the offending material from the Internet. It will result in an online game of whack-a-mole; when one site is blocked, another will pop up. It’s easily circumvented – there are many services available to bypass DNS and geo-blocking.

The legislation may in fact be a nonstarter. According to many sources, the law would not survive a likely court challenge. Some argue that it limits freedom of expression guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and others question whether a provincial government has the jurisdiction to enact such legislation at all as telecommunications is the exclusive responsibility of the federal government.

Regardless, it is unfortunate the Quebec government chose to pursue DNS blocking as policy. As the 2012 ISOC paper states, “The negative impact of DNS filtering far outweighs the short-term legal and business benefits.”

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