The way Canadians use the Internet and technology - from downloading music to buying new cellphones - could face unprecedented restrictions under new federal policies that critics say are being decided behind closed doors.
The Conservative government has been involved in international talks in recent months to develop an international anti-counterfeiting strategy to reduce Internet piracy and the flow of counterfeit goods. But critics say that instead of cracking down on rogue Internet users heavily involved in illegal file sharing, the agreement seems poised to dramatically increase the government's ability to police the activities of Canadians, even when they legally purchase music files, DVDs and electronic equipment such as cellphones and personal video recorders.
"This is an attempt here to create a very broad umbrella that strikes at the very heart of every day activities for millions of Canadians," said Michael Geist, law professor at the University of Ottawa and Canada Research Chair of Internet and e-commerce law.
The issue is gaining significant momentum after a discussion paper on the anti-counterfeiting strategy that purportedly originated with the U.S. government was leaked on the Internet a few days ago. One of the most contentious proposals is to "encourage" Internet service providers to monitor the online activities of their customers and report activity that may infringe copyright law - a move that amounts to spying and could undermine the privacy of Canadians, Prof. Geist said.
The changes may also give border guards the authority to search laptops and personal music recorders to look for any illegally obtained material.
The controversy is part of a larger debate over protection of intellectual property and comes as the federal government prepares to table proposed changes to Canada's copyright law. Many privacy and consumer advocates fear the new rules will be unfairly restrictive and favour the movie, television and music industries over individuals.
The changes could place significant limits on the ability of Canadians to use music or movie files, and may even make it an offence to purchase DVDs, cellphones or digital video recorders in the United States and other foreign countries for use here, Prof. Geist said.
"It threatens to truly reshape the way the Internet functions," he said, adding that the consultation period on the new anti-counterfeiting strategy was too short and didn't allow for proper input.
However, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce said the issues are much broader than music file sharing, and that Canada's economy is suffering because of lax intellectual property laws.
"On a whole, Canada really needs to keep up with the world to do better on the protection of intellectual property, to keep jobs in the knowledge-based economy," said Chris Gray, a policy analyst at the chamber. "It's not restricting people buying and using the music or the movies, it's making sure it's not copied a million times without proper credit given to the actors or the people who are making the material."
The chamber will announce today the creation of the Canadian Intellectual Property Council, a coalition of businesses demanding stronger intellectual property protection.
Industry Minister Jim Prentice declined to comment on the issue yesterday.
"We would be glad to talk about copyright when we have a bill to talk about," Bill Rodgers, the minister's director of communications, said in an e-mail.