Could Canadians who watch the U.S. version of Netflix face new rules?

Could Netflix users who try to access the U.S. version of the streaming service face new legal roadblocks?.
Could Netflix users who try to access the U.S. version of the streaming service face new legal roadblocks?. AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File

Corporations that use virtual private networks to keep their businesses secure and Canadians who find ways to access the U.S. version of Netflix may be facing new regulations in the coming years as Ottawa struggles to keep pace with emerging copyright issues.

Briefing notes provided to Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly — recently made public by her department — reveal that staff felt it necessary to devote an entire section of the minister’s crash-course to copyright issues.

In that section, “copyright infringement using virtual private networks” and “hybrid legal/illegal offer of online content” are items identified by department staff as emerging  issues that the minister should be aware of.

READ MORE: The Netflix tax is already here – but you might not be paying it

Virtual private networks, or VPNs, are used legally across the country by many individuals and companies to keep internal data and communications secure. Problems arise, however, when people use VPNs to hide illegal activity like copyright infringement.

Story continues below advertisement

The mention of “hybrid legal/illegal” online content was particularly interesting to Michael Geist, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law. Geist speculates this may be a reference to Canadians using Netflix (a legal streaming service) but breaking so-called digital locks in order to access content not licensed in Canada. Right now, the legality of streaming U.S. Netflix from north of the border remains somewhat murky.

Breaking news from Canada and around the world sent to your email, as it happens.

“I think this puts up some pretty big red flags,” Geist said of the briefing document — especially if Ottawa is considering legislation that would attempt to regulate VPNs somehow, or punish people for accessing U.S. Netflix content.

Also flagged in the briefing notes was the question of Internet service providers (ISPs) being permitted to block illegal websites hosted outside of Canada, something Geist said would be “highly problematic.”

“We don’t put ISPs in the role of being censors and blocking access,” he said. “We simply don’t block.”

VPNs and Netflix, meanwhile, are hugely popular services across Canada.

“If government departments are thinking about new rules, then frankly you’d have consumers and businesses deeply concerned with the prospect of government stepping in to regulate,” Geist said.

Review set for 2017

Asked if Ottawa was indeed discussing or considering new copyright legislation linked to the “emerging” issues mentioned in the briefing notes, a spokesperson for Canadian Heritage responded in an email that:

Story continues below advertisement

“The government intends to consider the many issues related to copyright and new technologies in the context of the Parliamentary Review of the Copyright Act scheduled for 2017.”

The whole point of that review, the email explained, “is to ensure that the Copyright Act remains responsive to a changing environment, and to the interests of all Canadians, including creators and users.”

The spokesperson also noted that while hybrid legal/illegal online content is mentioned in the briefing package, the notes do not make any specific reference to Canadians streaming the U.S. version of Netflix.

Geist said he’s not sure what else it could mean, however.

“Technically speaking, the government is in a position to pass the legislation it wants,” he noted. “I think [these issues] are all likely to be enormously controversial.”

Sponsored content