Blogs & Comment

A better way to stop Canadians from using a VPN

Bell Media’s new president says accessing U.S.-based streaming video services is theft. Here’s why she’s wrong

bunch of white ethernet cables with one special red one

(Christian Baitg/Getty)

It looks like Mary Ann Turcke, Bell Media’s new president, is picking up where her ousted predecessor Kevin Crull left off, at least when it comes to hurling provocative invective. In a speech this week, Turcke labelled Canadians who use circumvention software to access Netflix’s U.S. catalog as thieves. Oh the irony.

Turcke related a story of how her 15-year-old daughter was using a virtual private network to do just that. “She is 15 … and she was stealing,” she said. “Suffice to say, there is no more VPNing… We have to get engaged and tell people they are stealing.”

One would suspect that the daughter of the president of the biggest media company in the country shouldn’t have any need to use a VPN to access U.S. Netflix. Surely the Turcke household is subscribed to Bell’s highest-tier TV package, with all manner of channels, shows and movies flowing like water, which kind of makes the anecdote sound a little fishy.

The irony lies in what is a now-accepted principle of digital goods: that when they are made easily available at a reasonable price, people usually end up willing to pay for them. Netflix has said BitTorrent use in Canada has been cut in half since the company set up shop and independent studies have found the same—that legal services such as Spotify curb use of shadier ones wherever they pop up.

Anecdotally, I can attest to that. I’ve used a VPN to access U.S. Netflix over the past few months specifically to access three shows not on the Canadian service: Parks and Recreation, 30 Rockand Louie. That’s it. I’m otherwise happy with Canadian Netflix.

I’m in the process of testing out Shomi – Rogers and Shaw’s streaming service – ahead of its wider Canadian launch this summer (full review coming soon). Wouldn’t you know it, all three of those shows are there.

Guess what? I’ll be subscribing to Shomi just as soon as it’s extended beyond just Rogers and Shaw customers. It’s easier than using a VPN and it’s reasonably priced.

I’ll wager many Canadians will do the same and—just like Netflix lowered BitTorrent’s popularity—the greater availability of content via legitimate streaming options will lead to a corresponding decline in VPN use.

So here’s a question for Turcke. If using software to access content that isn’t available in the format desired is theft, then what is forcing people to pay for things they don’t want just to get the things they do?

At the risk of verging into provocative invective, most people would call that extortion. And yet it perfectly describes the cable system so far, where for decades people have been forced to pay for channels and shows they don’t want just to access the handful they do.

Extortion also perfectly describes Bell’s own streaming effort, CraveTV, which is only available to those who also pay for one of those expensive TV subscriptions. CraveTV is the only legitimate way for Canadians to get some highly sought after streaming content, including HBO.

In the same speech, Turcke stopped short of announcing that Bell will follow Shomi’s lead and open CraveTV to all Canadians without a TV subscription. The belief is the company doesn’t have the rights to do so – either Bell hasn’t been able to wring those rights away from the likes of HBO, or HBO is too smart to give them up.

Either way, accusing someone of stealing when you’re guilty of something potentially worse isn’t likely to garner sympathy for your cause. If Bell really wants to stop thievery, the company may want to consider cutting out the extortion.