Only last week, the Superior Court ruled against Québec's attempt to ban online gambling sites for good. As the Court held, this attempt was more rooted in the financial gains of the province-owned Loto-Québec corporation than truly invested in public health.
The Case of Bill 74 and Loto-Québec
In May 2016, the Québec province passed Bill 74. This bill is a consumer protection legislation that orders ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to block online gambling sites with an international license. Conveniently, these international online gambling sites are also competition for Loto-Québec, a government-run gambling corporation. Loto-Québec operates and licenses a number of Canadian lotteries. More importantly to this situation, it also has its own online poker website called EspaceJeux.ca.
Loto-Québec built the argument for this bill by maintaining that just coming across, or seeing the names of gambling sites, might induce someone to gamble. This was a matter of ‘public health' above all else, as claimed by Finance Minister Carlos Leitao. Meaning, protecting the citizens of Québec from the problems of gambling as online gambling sites did not employ the same regulations that government-run sites did.
Of course, the corporation failed to point out the conflict of interest present in the situation given that it was attempting to block its competitors from the internet. In fact, as Minister Leitao himself went on to state, blocking competitor sites is estimated to add C$27 million to Loto-Québec's annual revenue.
The Case Today
The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) recently challenged Bill 74. The argument put forward was simple: one province, Québec in this case, should not have the power to command internet providers. Especially when it came to blocking entire websites, essentially ‘censoring' the internet.
Technically, by federal law, that power lies with the CWTA itself according to the Telecommunications Act. This Act clearly states that internet providers:
shall not control the content or influence the meaning or purpose of telecommunications carried by it for the public
Last week, the Superior Court ruled in favor of the CWTA and against the province of Québec.
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.
Justice Pierre Nollet, in response to Minister Leitao's ‘public health' claims, stated:
The veritable character (of the law) is to prevent gaming websites not exploited by the government from being accessible, and not about protecting consumers or their health.
The Court ruled Bill 47 as being ‘unconstitutional', agreeing with the CWTA and other consumer groups which also opposed to the bill, arguing it threatened net neutrality. CWTA's Government Relations Manager, Tiéoulé Traoré, claimed that:
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.
University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist agreed with the Court's decision in the matter. He too stated that the initial legislation was always about increasing Loto-Québec's revenue as opposed to the proposed reason behind it. He stated that:
(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.
Finance Minister Leitao and spokespersons for Loto-Québec were not available for comments.