Might As Well Just Stay Home These Days

Last modified on May 29th, 2008

You know, I remember back in the good old days when you could cross the US/Canada border relatively easily. The worse thing that would typically happen was for you to have your car searched, or get asked a pile of questions from a border guard.

That changed a few years ago when the border agents were given the ability to search your laptop for child pornography. And while I think the end goal (cracking down on pedophiles) is a good one, I have to say that I’m against the current method of blindly searching through digital content.

Luckily I’ve never been searched at the border, which is rather strange given that I actually do a fair bit of traveling with my current job. My friend Jason however got searched in the Ottawa airport last time he landed there, and was forced to sit in a chair and watch as a security person went through every file on his computer. He was even forced to give up his personal passwords for any content that was protected.

In the last few days some documents have leaked out here in Canada about some secret (and extremely alarming) negotiations going on in the area of copyright:

The federal government is secretly negotiating an agreement to revamp international copyright laws which could make the information on Canadian iPods, laptop computers or other personal electronic devices illegal and greatly increase the difficulty of travelling with such devices.

The deal could also impose strict regulations on Internet service providers, forcing those companies to hand over customer information without a court order.

Called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), the new plan would see Canada join other countries, including the United States and members of the European Union, to form an international coalition against copyright infringement.

The agreement is being structured much like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) except it will create rules and regulations regarding private copying and copyright laws.

Federal trade agreements do not require parliamentary approval.

The deal would create a international regulator that could turn border guards and other public security personnel into copyright police. The security officials would be charged with checking laptops, iPods and even cellular phones for content that “infringes” on copyright laws, such as ripped CDs and movies.

The guards would also be responsible for determining what is infringing content and what is not.

The agreement proposes any content that may have been copied from a DVD or digital video recorder would be open for scrutiny by officials – even if the content was copied legally.

“If Hollywood could order intellectual property laws for Christmas what would they look like? This is pretty close,” said David Fewer, staff counsel at the University of Ottawa’s Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic. “The process on ACTA so far has been cloak and dagger. This certainly raises concerns.”

The leaked ACTA document states officials should be given the “authority to take action against infringers (i.e., authority to act without complaint by rights holders).”

Anyone found with infringing content in their possession would be open to a fine.

They may also have their device confiscated or destroyed, according to the four-page document.

The trade agreement includes “civil enforcement” measures which give security personnel the “authority to order ex parte searches” (without a lawyer present) “and other preliminary measures”.

In Canada, border guards already perform random searches of laptops at airports to check for child pornography. ACTA would expand the role of those guards.

On top of these enforcement efforts, ACTA also proposes imposing new sanctions on Internet service providers. It would force them to hand over personal information pertaining to “claimed infringement” or “alleged infringers” – users who may be transmitting or sharing copyrighted content over the Internet.

Currently, rights holders must collect evidence to prove someone is sharing copyrighted material over the Internet. That evidence is then presented to a judge who issues a court order telling the Internet service provider to identify the customer.


Fewer expressed concerns about the part of the proposal that calls for ACTA to operate outside of accepted international forums such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) or the United Nations.

In the discussion paper, it is proposed ACTA create its own governing body and be overseen by a committee made up of representatives from member nations.

“This initiative is unprecedented,” he said.

There are so many alarming things there, I’m not even sure what to focus on. Even the courts these days have a hard time determining what constitutes copyright infringement with regards to digital content, and yet the government now wants to give border agents the ability to make that determination on their own? Forcing ISPs to pass over personal information just on suspicion of copyright infringement? So much for privacy and due process I guess.

Let’s hope this measure doesn’t get passed. If it does, it would be a monumental step backwards for Canadians, and bring us that much closer to a police state.