The Canadian province of Quebec’s attempts at blocking online gambling sites have been thwarted thanks to the Quebec Superior Court. The proposed legislation, Bill 74, would have forced internet service providers (ISPs) to block all domain names of gambling sites that hold an international license.
Quebec’s government attempted to enact the law on the basis of protecting consumers from the health hazards supposedly caused by online gambling. Essentially, they were pushing the narrative that simply being exposed to a gambling website poses some sort of threat to web users.
The Superior Court saw through the hollow proclaimed motive of the provincial government that masked deeper intentions to censor online content and declared its purported concern for public health to be superficial in this instance.
The Tribunal, after analyzing the pith and substance of the Provincial Provision, concludes that the association of this provision with consumer protection is only superficial. The essence of the impugned provisions is to enforce the exclusive right of the province to exploit online gambling by imposing an obligation on ISPs to block signals or data from content providers that the province considers illegal. These powers fall under federal jurisdiction.
The “real” reason for the concern regarding gambling sites was competition for Loto-Quebec and its gambling site Espacejeux which offers online poker which is the only government-approved gambling site. According to minister of finance Carlos Leitao, blocking said gambling sites would have added as much as CA$27 million ($20 million) to Loto-Quebec revenue.
But thanks to the Court’s ruling, the province will have to use other methods than thinly-veiled censorship to bolster its products’ revenue. The attempt not to outlaw online gambling over public health concerns, but actually maintain a monopoly over the local gambling market has hit a speed bump.
The decision strikes a major blow against censorship and is a major victory for those in favor of limiting local government intervention into internet use not just in Canada but around the world.
The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association’s manager of government relations Tiéoulé Traoré was thrilled with the result, though not surprised the court had protected the rights of the free market against attempts by provincial government to enact special laws.
“We have always been clear that Canadians are better served by a proportionate and symmetrical set of federal regulations than a patchwork of provincial regulations. This decision is important as we feel it will help send a strong message of regulatory certainty, and increase the incentives for facilities-based investment in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada.”
Prominent University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist also championed the Court’s decision to uphold free market standards against the wishes of provincial government.
“(The ruling) sends a strong message to the Quebec government and to any provincial government that might think regulating the internet through mandating blocking schemes is the way to go…The government wasn't shy about that until the reality of the court challenge, and then there was this attempt to frame it as a health and safety measure…There are implications (in the ruling) for other site-blocking proposals. Because it says the courts understand (the CRTC) by and large, doesn't block content, and if so, does it under very, very limited circumstances.”
Justice Pierre Nollet wrote a scathing ruling that laid bare the true intentions of the provincial government and discussed how they contradicted the Telecommunications Act of 1993 that enshrined the principle of net neutrality.
“The veritable character (of Bill 74) is to prevent gaming websites not exploited by the government from being accessible, and not about protecting consumers or their health. Its pith and substance is to prevent online gambling not set up and operated by the province from being ‘communicated’ by ISPs and not the protection of consumers or their health…Except where the Commission (the CRTC) approves otherwise, a Canadian carrier shall not control the content or influence the meaning or purpose of telecommunications carried by it for the public.”