TPP: Punishment over privacy

Canada has been called a haven for internet piracy thanks to a legal situation that protects internet service costumers from litigation by copyright owners.

These laws are good news for anyone with a bootlegged copy of Frozen on their computer, but bad news for corporate profits.  That may change, as provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership are set to compel a stronger stance on piracy from all its member nations. But while the policy is a problem for pirates, it also exposes individual citizens to litigation from corporate giants.

Documents leaked Oct. 12 reveal the TPP would require internet service providers to give up the identity of copyright violators – including anyone who downloads a movie, TV show or song from a file sharing service – to the owners of the copyrighted material. This change would fundamentally shift the balance of power in Canadian copyright law – and not in a good way.

Now, Canadian law handles pirates through a practice called notice-and-notice. Internet service providers send notices to customers who pirate copyrighted materials on behalf of the copyright owners.  The notices tell them their activities are infringing. But at the moment, the service providers don’t have to tell the owner who pirated the material and usually won’t.

Before this, Canada’s piracy laws were frequently called inadequate. But since the notice-and-notice policy, Canadian ISPs have reported major drops in their customers’ piracy.

But although Canada’s current laws have proven to at least somewhat reduce piracy, they fail to satisfy the TPP’s goal to “permit effective action by rights holders against copyright infringement.” The current draft of the document aims to fix that by letting the owners – in many cases multinational corporations – aim their ire directly at the individual pirates.

The fact they can’t already do this isn’t a problem with Canada’s laws, though. It’s a feature. By keeping litigious rights-holders separate from pirates, the current Canadian system protects individual citizens from the massive weight of the corporate legal hammer. 

The relationship between a multinational media corporation and a pirate who downloads movies for personal use is profoundly asymmetrical. It’s you and your bootleg of Frozen against Disney and its legions of lawyers. That’s less David versus Goliath than it is ant versus boot.

This relationship played out in 2012 when a U.S. appeals court ordered Jammie Thomas-Rasset to pay $222,000 in damages to Capitol Records after she illegally downloaded 24 songs online. This is more than disproportionate punishment – it’s crushing debt for anyone in a middle income bracket.

While it’s unrealistic to think companies would come after every pirate like this, it sends a clear message: this could be you. And if we’re not careful, the TPP will allow companies up to bring this kind of tactic to Canada.

The problem is what to do now. The document that leaked with this information is billed as the final version of the agreement, so there’s little chance left to get it changed. Still, though Stephen Harper provisionally signed Canada onto the agreement beferore the election, it’s not too late to back out.