Countries around the world continue to wage a not particularly subtle war on the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and encryption. In Russia, the government has all but banned the use of VPNs by layering all manner of obnoxious restrictions and caveats on VPN operators. The goal, as we've seen in China and countless other countries, is to ban VPN use without making it explicitly clear you're banning VPN use. The deeper goal is always the same: less privacy and online freedom for users who use such tools to dodge surveillance or other, even dumber government policies.
Of course there's plenty of companies eager to see VPN use banned as well, whether it's the entertainment industry hoping to thwart piracy, or broadcasters trying to hinder those looking to dance around geographical viewing restrictions. Lost in the hysteria is usually the fact that VPNs are just another security tool with a myriad of purposes, most of which aren't remotely nefarious and shouldn't be treated as such.
Apparently, you can count Canadian telecom incumbent Bell among the companies hoping to ban VPN use. Anja Karadeglija, the editor of paywalled telecom news outlet the Wire Report, obtained documents this week highlighting how Bell had been pushing Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland for a VPN ban to be included in NAFTA negotiations. Why? It doesn't want users using VPNs to watch the US Netflix catalog:
"In its submission, Bell argued that Canadians accessing content from a US service with a VPN “unjustly enriches the US service, which has not paid for the Canadian rights” but nonetheless makes that content available to Canadians. Bell’s media arm reportedly spends millions on content for it streaming service, Crave TV, which allows Canadians to stream content from American networks such as HBO and Showtime."
Again though, it's not the VPN doing that. And if you want to stop users from flocking to better content catalogs elsewhere on the continent, you should focus your ire on the things causing that to happen -- like increasingly dated and absurd geo-viewing restrictions, and your own substandard content offerings that fail to adequately match up. That message was lost on Bell, however:
“Canada should seek rules in NAFTA that require each party to explicitly make it unlawful to offer a VPN service used for the purpose of circumventing copyright, to allow rightsholders to enforce this rule, and to confirm that it is a violation of copyright if a service effectively makes content widely available in territories in which it does not own the copyright due to an ineffective or insufficiently robust geo-targeting system,” the submission stated."
How exactly you're supposed to determine that somebody is using a VPN to not watch Bell's own television services isn't really explained, and the fact that enforcement would likely be technically impossible appears to have been an afterthought. As Canadian Law Professor Michael Geist was quick to note, trying to ban VPNs just as they're reaching critical mass as a partial solution to raging North American privacy scandals suggests Bell may not exactly have its finger on the pulse of common sense on this particular subject.