EFF: The False Teeth of Chrome’s Ad Filter.

The False Teeth of Chrome’s Ad Filter.

Today Google launched a new version of its Chrome browser with what they call an ad filter„—which means that it sometimes blocks ads but is not an ad blocker.“ EFF welcomes the elimination of the worst ad formats. But Google’s approach here is a band-aid response to the crisis of trust in advertising that leaves massive user privacy issues unaddressed. 

Last year, a new industry organization, the Coalition for Better Ads, published user research investigating ad formats responsible for bad ad experiences.“ The Coalition examined 55 ad formats, of which 12 were deemed unacceptable. These included various full page takeovers (prestitial, postitial, rollover), autoplay videos with sound, pop-ups of all types, and ad density of more than 35% on mobile. Google is supposed to check sites for the forbidden formats and give offenders 30 days to reform or have all their ads blocked in Chrome. Censured sites can purge the offending ads and request reexamination. 

The Coalition for Better Ads Lacks a Consumer Voice

The Coalition involves giants such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, ad trade organizations, and adtech companies and large advertisers. Criteo, a retargeter with a history of contested user privacy practice is also involved, as is content marketer Taboola. Consumer and digital rights groups are not represented in the Coalition.

This industry membership explains the limited horizon of the group, which ignores the non-format factors that annoy and drive users to install content blockers. While people are alienated by aggressive ad formats, the problem has other dimensions. Whether it’s the use of ads as a vector for malware, the consumption of mobile data plans by bloated ads, or the monitoring of user behavior through tracking technologies, users have a lot of reasons to take action and defend themselves.

But these elements are ignored. Privacy, in particular, figured neither in the tests commissioned by the Coalition, nor in their three published reports that form the basis for the new standards. This is no surprise given that participating companies include the four biggest tracking companies: Google, Facebook, Twitter, and AppNexus

Stopping the Biggest Boycott in History

Some commentators have interpreted ad blocking as the „biggest boycott in history“ against the abusive and intrusive nature of online advertising. Now the Coalition aims to slow the adoption of blockers by enacting minimal reforms. Pagefair, an adtech company that monitors adblocker use, estimates 600 million active users of blockers. Some see no ads at all, but most users of the two largest blockers, AdBlock and Adblock Plus, see ads whitelistedunder the Acceptable Ads program. These companies leverage their position as gatekeepers to the user’s eyeballs, obliging Google to buy back access to the blocked part of their user base through payments under Acceptable Ads. This is expensive (a German newspaper claims a figure as high as 25 million euros) and is viewed with disapproval by many advertisers and publishers. 

Industry actors now understand that adblocking’s momentum is rooted in the industry’s own failures, and the Coalition is a belated response to this. While nominally an exercise in self-regulation, the enforcement of the standards through Chrome is a powerful stick. By eliminating the most obnoxious ads, they hope to slow the growth of independent blockers.

What Difference Will It Make?

Coverage of Chrome’s new feature has focused on the impact on publishers, and on doubts about the Internet’s biggest advertising company enforcing ad standards through its dominant browser. Google has sought to mollify publishers by stating that only 1% of sites tested have been found non-compliant, and has heralded the changed behavior of major publishers like the LA Times and Forbes as evidence of success. But if so few sites fall below the Coalition’s bar, it seems unlikely to be enough to dissuade users from installing a blocker. Eyeo, the company behind Adblock Plus, has a lot to lose should this strategy be successful. Eyeo argues that Chrome will only filter 17% of the 55 ad formats tested, whereas 94% are blocked by AdblockPlus.

User Protection or Monopoly Power?

The marginalization of egregious ad formats is positive, but should we be worried by this display of power by Google? In the past, browser companies such as Opera and Mozilla took the lead in combating nuisances such as pop-ups, which was widely applauded. Those browsers were not active in advertising themselves. The situation is different with Google, the dominant player in the ad and browser markets.

Google exploiting its browser dominance to shape the conditions of the advertising market raises some concerns. It is notable that the ads Google places on videos in Youtube (instream pre-roll) were not user-tested and are exempted from the prohibition on auto-play ads with sound.“ This risk of a conflict of interest distinguishes the Coalition for Better Ads from, for example, Chrome’s monitoring of sites associated with malware and related user protection notifications.

There is also the risk that Google may change position with regard to third-party extensions that give users more powerful options. Recent history justifies such concern: Disconnect and Ad Nauseam have been excluded from the Chrome Store for alleged violations of the Store’s rules. (Ironically, Adblock Plus has never experienced this problem.)

Chrome Falls Behind on User Privacy 

This move from Google will reduce the frequency with which users run into the most annoying ads. Regardless, it fails to address the larger problem of tracking and privacy violations. Indeed, many of the Coalition’s members were active opponents of Do Not Track at the W3C, which would have offered privacyconscious users an easy optout. The resulting impression is that the ad filter is really about the industry trying to solve its adblocking problem, not about addressing users‘ concerns.

Chrome, together with Microsoft Edge, is now the last major browser to not offer integrated tracking protection. Firefox introduced this feature last November in Quantum, enabled by default in Private Browsing mode with the option to enable it universally. Meanwhile, Apple’s Safari browser has Intelligent Tracking Prevention, Opera ships with an ad/tracker blocker for users to activate, and Brave has user privacy at the center of its design. It is a shame that Chrome’s user security and safety team, widely admired in the industry, is empowered only to offer protection against outside attackers, but not against commercial surveillance conducted by Google itself and other advertisers. If you are using Chrome (1), you need EFF’s Privacy Badger or uBlock Origin to fill this gap.

(1) This article does not address other problematic aspects of Google services. When users sign into Gmail, for example, their activity across other Google products is logged. Worse yet, when users are signed into Chrome their full browser history is stored by Google and may be used for ad targeting. This account data can also be linked to Doubleclick’s cookies. The storage of browser history is part of Sync (enabling users access to their data across devices), which can also be disabled. If users desire to use Sync but exclude the data from use for ad targeting by Google, this can be selected under ‘Web And App Activity’ in Activity controls. There is an additional opt-out from Ad Personalization in Privacy Settings.

Published February 16, 2018 at 03:00AM
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EFF: Federal Judge Says Embedding a Tweet Can Be Copyright Infringement

Federal Judge Says Embedding a Tweet Can Be Copyright Infringement

Rejecting years of settled precedent, a federal court in New York has ruled [PDF] that you could infringe copyright simply by embedding a tweet in a web page. Even worse, the logic of the ruling applies to all in-line linking, not just embedding tweets. If adopted by other courts, this legally and technically misguided decision would threaten millions of ordinary Internet users with infringement liability.

This case began when Justin Goldman accused online publications, including Breitbart, Time, Yahoo, Vox Media, and the Boston Globe, of copyright infringement for publishing articles that linked to a photo of NFL star Tom Brady. Goldman took the photo, someone else tweeted it, and the news organizations embedded a link to the tweet in their coverage (the photo was newsworthy because it showed Brady in the Hamptons while the Celtics were trying to recruit Kevin Durant). Goldman said those stories infringe his copyright.

Courts have long held that copyright liability rests with the entity that hosts the infringing content—not someone who simply links to it. The linker generally has no idea that it’s infringing, and isn’t ultimately in control of what content the server will provide when a browser contacts it. This “server test,” originally from a 2007 Ninth Circuit case called Perfect 10 v. Amazon, provides a clear and easy-to-administer rule. It has been a foundation of the modern Internet.

Judge Katherine Forrest rejected the Ninth Circuit’s server test, based in part on a surprising approach to the process of embedding. The opinion describes the simple process of embedding a tweet or image—something done every day by millions of ordinary Internet users—as if it were a highly technical process done by “coders.” That process, she concluded, put publishers, not servers, in the drivers’ seat:

[W]hen defendants caused the embedded Tweets to appear on their websites, their actions violated plaintiff’s exclusive display right; the fact that the image was hosted on a server owned and operated by an unrelated third party (Twitter) does not shield them from this result.

She also argued that Perfect 10 (which concerned Google’s image search) could be distinguished because in that case the “user made an active choice to click on an image before it was displayed.” But that was not a detail that the Ninth Circuit relied on in reaching its decision. The Ninth Circuit’s rule—which looks at who actually stores and serves the images for display—is far more sensible.

If this ruling is appealed (there would likely need to be further proceedings in the district court first), the Second Circuit will be asked to consider whether to follow Perfect 10 or Judge Forrest’s new rule. We hope that today’s ruling does not stand. If it did, it would threaten the ubiquitous practice of in-line linking that benefits millions of Internet users every day.

Published February 16, 2018 at 03:12AM
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EFF: Customs and Border Protection’s Biometric Data Snooping Goes Too Far

Customs and Border Protection’s Biometric Data Snooping Goes Too Far

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Privacy Office, and Office of Field Operations recently invited privacy stakeholders—including EFF and the ACLU of Northern California—to participate in a briefing and update on how the CBP is implementing its Biometric Entry/Exit Program.

As we’ve written before, biometrics systems are designed to identify or verify the identity of people by using their intrinsic physical or behavioral characteristics. Because biometric identifiers are by definition unique to an individual person, government collection and storage of this data poses unique threats to privacy and security of individual travelers.

EFF has many concerns about the government collecting and using biometric identifiers, and specifically, we object to the expansion of several DHS programs subjecting Americans and foreign citizens to facial recognition screening at international airports. EFF appreciated the opportunity to share these concerns directly with CBP officers and we hope to work with CBP to allow travelers to opt-out of the program entirely.

You can read the full letter we sent to CBP here.

Published February 16, 2018 at 02:21AM
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EFF: The Revolution and Slack

The Revolution and Slack

The revolution will not be televised, but it may be hosted on Slack. Community groups, activists, and workers in the United States are increasingly gravitating toward the popular collaboration tool to communicate and coordinate efforts. But many of the people using Slack for political organizing and activism are not fully aware of the ways Slack falls short in serving their security needs. Slack has yet to support this community in its default settings or in its ongoing design.  

We urge Slack to recognize the community organizers and activists using its platform and take more steps to protect them. In the meantime, this post provides context and things to consider when choosing a platform for political organizing, as well as some tips about how to set Slack up to best protect your community.

The Mismatch

Slack is designed as an enterprise system built for business settings. That results in a sometimes dangerous mismatch between the needs of the audience the company is aimed at serving and the needs of the important, often targeted community groups and activists who are also using it.

We urge Slack to recognize the community organizers and activists using its platform and take more steps to protect them.

Two things that EFF tends to recommend for digital organizing are 1) using encryption as extensively as possible, and 2) self-hosting, so that a governmental authority has to get a warrant for your premises in order to access your information. The central thing to understand about Slack (and many other online services) is that it fulfills neither of these things. This means that if you use Slack as a central organizing tool, Slack stores and is able to read all of your communications, as well as identifying information for everyone in your workspace.

We know that for many, especially small organizations, self-hosting is not a viable option, and using strong encryption consistently is hard. Meanwhile, Slack is easy, convenient, and useful. Organizations have to balance their own risks and benefits. Regardless of your situation, it is important to understand the risks of organizing on Slack.

First, The Good News

Slack follows several best practices in standing up for users. Slack does require a warrant for content stored on its servers. Further, it promises not to voluntarily provide information to governments for surveillance purposes. Slack also promises to require the FBI to go to court to enforce gag orders issued with National Security Letters, a troubling form of subpoena. Additionally, federal law prohibits Slack from handing over content (but not metadata like membership lists) in response to civil subpoenas.

Slack also stores your data in encrypted form, which means that if it leaks or is stolen, it is not readable. This is excellent protection if you are worried about attacks and data breaches. It is not useful, however, if you are worried about governments or other entities putting pressure on Slack to hand over your information.

Risks With Slack In Particular

And now the downsides. These are things that Slack could change, and EFF has called on them to do so.

Slack can turn over content to law enforcement in response to a warrant. Slack’s servers store everything you do on its platform. Since Slack can read this information on its servers—that is, since it’s not end-to-end encrypted—Slack can be forced to hand it over in response to law enforcement requests. Slack does require warrants to turn over content, and can resist warrants it considers improper or overbroad. But if Slack complies with a warrant, users’ communications are readable on Slack’s servers and available for it to turn over to law enforcement.

Slack may fail to notify users of government information requests. When the government comes knocking on a website’s door for user data, that website should, at a minimum, provide users with timely, detailed notice of the request. Slack’s policy in this regard is lacking. Although it states that it will provide advance notice to users of government demands, it allows for a broad set of exceptions to that standard. This is something that Slack could and should fix, but it refuses to even explain why it has included these loopholes

Slack content can make its way into your email inbox. Signing up for a Slack workspace also signs you up, by default, for email notifications when you are directly mentioned or receive a direct message. These email notifications can include the content of those mentions and messages. If you expect sensitive messages to stay in the Slack workspace where they were written and shared, this might be an unpleasant surprise. With these defaults in place, you have to trust not only Slack but also your email provider with your own and others’ private content.

Risks With Third-Party Platforms in General

Many of the risks that come with using Slack are also risks that come with using just about any third-party online platform. Most of these are problems with the law that we all must work on to fix together. Nevertheless, organizers must consider these risks when deciding whether Slack or any other online third-party platform is right for them.

Many of the risks that come with using Slack are also risks that come with using just about any third-party online platform.

Much of your sensitive information is not subject to a warrant requirement.  While a warrant is required for content, some of the most sensitive information held by third-party platforms—including the identities and locations of the people in a Slack workspace—is considered “non-content” and not currently protected by the warrant requirement federally and in most states. If the identities of your organization’s membership is sensitive, consider whether Slack or any other online third party is right for you. 

Companies can be legally prevented from giving users notice. While Slack and many other platforms have promised to require the FBI to justify controversial National Security Letter gags, these gags may still be enforced in many cases. In addition, many warrants and other legal process contain different kinds of gags ordered by a court, leaving companies with no ability to notify you that the government has seized your data.

Slack workspaces are subject to civil discovery. Government is not the only entity that could seek information from Slack or other third parties. Private companies and other litigants have sought, and obtained, information from hosts ranging from Google to Microsoft to Facebook and Twitter. While federal law prevents them from handing over customer content in civil discovery, it does not protect “non-content” records, such as membership identities and locations.

A group is only as trustworthy as its members. Any group environment is only as trustworthy as the people who participate in it. Group members can share and even screenshot content, so it is important to establish guidelines and expectations that all members agree on. Establishing trusted admins or moderators to facilitate these agreements can also be beneficial.

Making Slack as Secure as Possible

If using Slack is still right for you, you can take steps to harden your security settings and make your closed workspaces as private as possible.

The lowest-hanging privacy fruit is to change a workspace’s retention settings. By default, Slack retains all the messages in a workspace or channel (including direct messages) for as long as the workspace exists. The same goes for any files submitted to the workspace. Workspace admins have the ability set shorter retention periods, which can mean less content available for government requests or legal inquiries.

Users can also address the email-leaking concern described above by minimizing email notification settings. This works best if all of the members of a group agree to do it, since email notifications can expose multiple users’ messages. 

The privacy of a Slack workspace also relies on the security of individual members’ accounts. Setting up two-factor authentication can add an extra layer of security to an account, and admins even have the option of making two-factor authentication mandatory for all the members of a workspace

However, no settings tweak can completely mitigate the concerns described above. We strongly urge Slack to step up to protect the high-risk groups that are using it along with its enterprise customers.  And all of us must stand together to push changes to the law.

Technology should stand with those who wish to make change in our world. Slack has made a great tool that can help, and it’s time for Slack to step up with its policies.

Published February 14, 2018 at 06:44PM
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EFF: Law Enforcement Use of Face Recognition Systems Threatens Civil Liberties, Disproportionately Affects People of Color: EFF Report

Law Enforcement Use of Face Recognition Systems Threatens Civil Liberties, Disproportionately Affects People of Color: EFF Report

Independent Oversight, Privacy Protections Are Needed

San Francisco, California—Face recognition—fast becoming law enforcement’s surveillance tool of choice—is being implemented with little oversight or privacy protections, leading to faulty systems that will disproportionately impact people of color and may implicate innocent people for crimes they didn’t commit, says an Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) report released today.

Face recognition is rapidly creeping into modern life, and face recognition systems will one day be capable of capturing the faces of people, often without their knowledge, walking down the street, entering stores, standing in line at the airport, attending sporting events, driving their cars, and utilizing public spaces. Researchers at the Georgetown Law School estimated that one in every two American adults—117 million people—are already in law enforcement face recognition systems.

This kind of surveillance will have a chilling effect on Americans’ willingness to exercise their rights to speak out and be politically engaged, the report says. Law enforcement has already used face recognition at political protests, and may soon use face recognition with body-worn cameras, to identify people in the dark, and to project what someone might look like from a police sketch or even a small sample of DNA.

Face recognition employs computer algorithms to pick out details about a person’s face from a photo or video to form a template. As the report explains, police use face recognition to identify unknown suspects by comparing their photos to images stored in databases and to scan public spaces to try to find specific pre-identified targets.

But no face recognition system is 100 percent accurate, and false positives—when a person’s face is incorrectly matched to a template image—are common. Research shows that face recognition misidentifies African Americans and ethnic minorities, young people, and women at higher rights that whites, older people, and men, respectively. And because of well-documented racially-biased police practices, all criminal databases—including mugshot databases—include a disproportionate number of African-Americans, Latinos, and immigrants.

For both reasons, inaccuracies in facial recognition systems will disproportionately affect people of color.

“The FBI, which has access to at least 400 million images and is the central source for facial recognition identification for federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, has failed to address the problem of false positives and inaccurate results,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch, author of the report. “It has conducted few tests to ensure accuracy and has done nothing to ensure its external partners—federal and state agencies—are not using face recognition in ways that allow innocent people to be identified as criminal suspects.”

Lawmakers, regulators, and policy makers should take steps now to limit face recognition collection and subject it to independent oversight, the report says. Legislation is needed to place meaningful checks on government use of face recognition, including rules limiting retention and sharing, requiring notification when face prints are collected, ensuring robust security procedures to prevent data breaches, and establishing legal processes governing when law enforcement may collect face images from the public without their knowledge, the report concludes.

“People should not have to worry that they may be falsely accused of a crime because an algorithm mistakenly matched their photo to a suspect. They shouldn’t have to worry that their data will end up in the hands of identify thieves because face recognition databases were breached. They shouldn’t have to fear that their every move will be tracked if face recognition is linked to the networks of surveillance cameras that blanket many cities,” said Lynch. “Without meaningful legal protections, this is where we may be headed.”

For the report:
https://www.eff.org/wp/law-enforcement-use-face-recognition

For more on face recognition:
https://www.eff.org/document/facial-recognition-one-pager

Contact: 
Jennifer
Lynch
Senior Staff Attorney

Published February 15, 2018 at 04:45PM
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EFF: Court Dismisses Playboy’s Lawsuit Against Boing Boing (For Now)

Court Dismisses Playboy’s Lawsuit Against Boing Boing (For Now)

In a win for free expression, a court has dismissed a copyright lawsuit against Happy Mutants, LLC, the company behind acclaimed website Boing Boing. The court ruled [PDF] that Playboy’s complaint—which accused Boing Boing of copyright infringement for linking to a collection of centerfolds—had not sufficiently established its copyright claim. Although the decision allows Playboy to try again with a new complaint, it is still a good result for supporters of online journalism and sensible copyright.

Playboy Entertainment’s lawsuit accused Boing Boing of copyright infringement for reporting on a historical collection of Playboy centerfolds and linking to a third-party site. In a February 2016 post, Boing Boing told its readers that someone had uploaded scans of the photos, noting they were “an amazing collection” reflecting changing standards of what is considered sexy. The post contained links to an imgur.com page and YouTube video—neither of which were created by Boing Boing.

EFF, together with co-counsel Durie Tangri, filed a motion to dismiss [PDF] on behalf of Boing Boing. We explained that Boing Boing did not contribute to the infringement of any Playboy copyrights by including a link to illustrate its commentary. The motion noted that another judge in the same district had recently dismissed a case where Quintin Tarantino accused Gawker of copyright infringement for linking to a leaked script in its reporting.

Judge Fernando M. Olguin’s ruling quotes the Tarantino decision, noting that:

An allegation that a defendant merely provided the means to accomplish an infringing activity is insufficient to establish a claim for copyright infringement. Rather, liability exists if the defendant engages in personal conduct that encourages or assists the infringement.

Given this standard, the court was “skeptical that plaintiff has sufficiently alleged facts to support either its inducement or material contribution theories of copyright infringement.”

From the outset of this lawsuit, we have been puzzled as to why Playboy, once a staunch defender of the First Amendment, would attack a small news and commentary website. Today’s decision leaves Playboy with a choice: it can try again with a new complaint or it can leave this lawsuit behind. We don’t believe there’s anything Playboy could add to its complaint that would meet the legal standard. We hope that it will choose not to continue with its misguided suit.

Published February 15, 2018 at 01:48AM
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EFF: Let’s Encrypt Hits 50 Million Active Certificates and Counting

Let’s Encrypt Hits 50 Million Active Certificates and Counting

In yet another milestone on the path to encrypting the web, Let’s Encrypt has now issued over 50 million active certificates. Depending on your definition of “website,” this suggests that Let’s Encrypt is protecting between about 23 million and 66 million websites with HTTPS (more on that below). Whatever the number, it’s growing every day as more and more webmasters and hosting providers use Let’s Encrypt to provide HTTPS on their websites by default.

Image of Let's Encrypt's statistics on a line graph, showing (roughly) Certificates Active reaching 66 million, Certificates at 50 million, and Registered Domains at 23 million

Source: http://ift.tt/1kJZpB5 as of February 14, 2018

Let’s Encrypt is a certificate authority, or CA. CAs like Let’s Encrypt are crucial to secure, HTTPS-encrypted browsing. They issue and maintain digital certificates that help web users and their browsers know they’re actually talking to the site they intended to.

One of the things that sets Let’s Encrypt apart is that it issues these certificates for free. And, with the help of EFF’s Certbot client and a range of other automation tools, it’s easy for webmasters of varying skill and resource levels to get a certificate and implement HTTPS. In fact, HTTPS encryption has become an automatic part of many hosting providers’ offerings.

50 million active certificates represents the number of certificates that are currently valid and have not expired. (Sometimes we also talk about “total issuance,” which refers to the total number of certificates ever issued by Let’s Encrypt. That number is around 217 million now.) Relating these numbers to names of “websites” is a bit complicated. Some certificates, such as those issued by certain hosting providers, cover many different sites. Yet some certificates are also redundant with others, so there may be a handful of active certificates all covering precisely the same names.

Every website protected is one step closer to encrypting the entire web, and milestones like this remind us that we are on our way to achieving that goal together.

One way to count is by “fully qualified domains active”—in other words, different names covered by non-expired certificates. This is now at 66 million. This metric can overcount sites; while most people would say that eff.org and www.eff.org are the same website, they count as two different names here.

Another way to count the number of websites that Let’s Encrypt protects is by looking at “registered domains active,” of which Let’s Encrypt currently has about 26 million. This refers to the number of different top-level domain names among non-expired certificates. In this case, supporters.eff.org and www.eff.org would be counted as one name. In cases where pages under the same top-level domain are run by different people with different content, this metric may undercount different sites.

No matter how you slice it, Let’s Encrypt is one of the largest CAs. And it has grown largely by giving websites their first-ever certificate rather than by grabbing websites from other CAs. That means that, as Let’s Encrypt grows, the number of HTTPS-protected websites on the web tends to grow too. Every website protected is one step closer to encrypting the entire web, and milestones like this remind us that we are on our way to achieving that goal together.

Published February 14, 2018 at 07:02PM
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EFF: Will Canada Be the New Testing Ground for SOPA-lite? Canadian Media Companies Hope So

Will Canada Be the New Testing Ground for SOPA-lite? Canadian Media Companies Hope So

A consortium of media and distribution companies calling itself “FairPlay Canada” is lobbying for Canada to implement a fast-track, extrajudicial website blocking regime in the name of preventing unlawful downloads of copyrighted works. It is currently being considered by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), an agency roughly analogous to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the U.S.

The proposal is misguided and flawed. We’re still analyzing it, but below are some preliminary thoughts.

The Proposal

The consortium is requesting the CRTC establish a part-time, non-profit organization that would receive complaints from various rightsholders alleging that a website is “blatantly, overwhelmingly, or structurally engaged” in violations of Canadian copyright law. If the sites were determined to be infringing, Canadian ISPs would be required to block access to these websites. The proposal does not specify how this would be accomplished.

The consortium proposes some safeguards in an attempt to show that the process would be meaningful and fair. It proposes the affected websites, ISPs, and members of the public would be allowed to respond to any blocking request. It also suggests that any blocking request would not be implemented unless a recommendation to block were adopted by the CRTC, and any affected party would have the right to appeal to a court.

Fairplay argues the system is necessary because, according to Fairplay, unlawful downloads are destroying the Canadian creative industry and harming Canadian culture.

(Some of) The Problems

As Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa points out, Canada had more investment in film and TV production last year than any other time in history. And it’s not just investment in creative industries that is seeing growth: legal means of accessing creative content is also growing, as Bell itself recognized in a statement to financial analysts. Contrary to the argument pushed by the content industry and other FairPlay backers, investment and lawful film and TV services are growing, not shrinking. The Canadian film and TV industries don’t need website-blocking.

The proposal would require service providers to “disappear” certain websites, endangering Internet security and sending a troubling message to the world: it’s okay to interfere with the Internet, even effectively blacklisting entire domains, as long as you do it in the name of IP enforcement. Of course, blacklisting entire domains can mean turning off thousands of underlying websites that may have done nothing wrong. The proposal doesn’t explain how blocking is to be accomplished, but when such plans have been raised in other contexts, we’ve noted the significant concerns we have about various technological ways of “blocking” that wreak havoc on how the Internet works.

And we’ve seen how harmful mistakes can be. For example, back in 2011, the U.S. government seized the domain names of two popular websites based on unsubstantiated allegations of copyright infringement. The government held those domains for over 18 months. As another example, one company named a whopping 3,343 websites in a lawsuit as infringing on trademark and copyright rights. Without an opposition, the company was able to get an order that required domain name registrars to seize these domains. Only after many defendants had their legitimate websites seized did the Court realize that statements made about many of the websites by the rightsholder were inaccurate.  Although the proposed system would involve blocking (however that is accomplished) and not seizing domains, the problem is clear: mistakes are made, and they can have long-lasting effect. 

But beyond blocking for copyright infringement, we’ve also seen that once a system is in place to take down one type of content, it will only lead to calls for more blocking, including that of lawful speech. This raises significant freedom of expression and censorship concerns.

We’re also concerned about what’s known as “regulatory capture” with this type of system, the idea that the regulator often tends to align its interests with those of the regulated. Here, the system would be initially funded by rightsholders, would be staffed “part-time” by those with “relevant experience,” and would get work when rightsholders view it as a valuable system. These sort of structural aspects of the proposal have a tendency to cause regulatory capture. An impartial judiciary that sees cases and parties from across a political, social, and cultural spectrum helps avoid this pitfall.

Finally, we’re also not sure why this proposal is needed at all. Canada already has some of the strongest anti-piracy laws in the world. The proposal just adds complexity and strips away some of the protections that a court affords those who may be involved in legitimate business (even if the content owners don’t like those businesses).

These are just some of the concerns raised by this proposal. Professor Geist’s blog highlights more, and in more depth.

What you can do

The CRTC is now accepting public comment on the proposal, and has already received over 4,000 comments. The deadline is March 1, although an extension has been sought. We encourage any interested members of the public to submit comments to let the Commission know your thoughts. Please note that all comments are made public, and require certain personal information to be included.

Published February 14, 2018 at 07:33PM
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