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Canadian broadcasters catching on to size of VPN problem

A Bell Media executive’s recent comments calling Canadians’ use of geoblocking devices to watch U.S. Netflix “stealing” are a sign that large broadcasters are finally acknowledging the extent of the problem, says Toronto lawyer Kevin Fisher.

As CBC News reports, Bell Media’s new president Mary Ann Turcke told attendees at the Telecom Summit in Toronto that Canadians who “skirt copyright laws by finding ways of accessing digital content hurt Canadian culture and jobs and need to stop.”

"I think it's great that somebody as high up as Mary Ann Turcke is taking on this issue,” says Fisher, a litigation partner with Basman Smith LLP. "It's time somebody did — someone with the clout and weight of Bell Media. It's something I've been talking about for years, that companies like Bell and Rogers should be doing more to speak out about this problem."

“It's been around for a long time, it's just becoming much more common. Now that more programming is being streamed, it's becoming a much bigger problem,” he adds.

As the article notes, streaming services like Netflix offer location-based access to content, determined by a device's IP address. However, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) can get around this, giving Canadians access to Netflix's U.S. programming, for example.

“Netflix itself doesn’t have to play by the same rules. Even when Netflix is trying to follow those rules by curtailing the products available in Canada, people are going around that and there’s no way to control the content,” explains Fisher.

In addition to VPNs, Fisher says there are also proxy servers, which have been around longer.

"I've been trying to deal with them because of geoblocking of sports. My clients deal with European sports that we bring to North America. It's very common for an expat to use these methods. It makes it look as if your computer is located somewhere else. It's big business for people trying to access soccer.”

And while some may not consider this to be outright piracy as they are paying for a VPN, Fisher says this is not the case.

"They can think that they’re not stealing, but they're lying to themselves. It's willful blindness. The reason that Netflix isn't showing something in Canada is because someone else licensed that product to another broadcaster or provider. It may even be a small company that has the license. It could be someone like my client. So that's how that business or artist operates, that's how they employ the people they employ.

"Maybe people don't realize just how big an employer these Canadian broadcasters are, how important television production and broadcasting is to Canada in terms of protecting rights. If people can simply skirt around the way in which people are able to earn an income then these businesses collapse and these jobs vanish.”

Indeed, he adds, the impact of geoblocking is more like “death by billions of cuts” than a small thumb prick for the entire industry.

"These broadcasters follow Canadian rules so that Canadian producers, broadcasters, actors — everybody — is getting what they are supposed to get so we can maintain a market. If you're using a VPN or proxy server, it's going to destroy the entire model that allows people to make money to survive.

"These aren't just rules to keep big business viable, it's to make sure everyone down the chain gets something for their work. It's similar to the music industry, where the artists are screaming because they aren't getting fairly compensated.”

At the same time, Fisher says Turcke’s recent comments are “big news,” given her position.

"A lot of times these big companies are worried that they're going to look like a David and Goliath against their customers but they haven't turned their minds to how big a problem this is. They're finally catching on.”

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