'Terrified' 60-year-old woman told to pay up for illegally downloading porn
Copyright-infringement notices demanding cash cause anxiety, says federal report
Debra is worried sick after receiving two copyright-infringement notices.
An anti-piracy company has informed the 60-year-old that her internet account was used to illegally download pornography, and that she could wind up in court if she doesn't pay a settlement fee.
"I've never done porno downloads in my life," says Debra, who lives in Ontario and has asked CBC News to withhold her last name.
"I'm terrified. I'm worried someone's going to come after me, I'm going to have a giant lawsuit on my hands."
"Threatening" copyright-infringement notices asking for settlement fees are creating "consumer anxiety" and "could lead to abuses," says an internal 2016 federal government report.
It also states that such notices aren't in line with the government's piracy notice program, which is meant to be educational, not punitive.
However, almost a year after the report was written, the threatening notices continue.
"The inaction is really difficult to understand," says Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa professor and internet law expert. He obtained the government report through an access to information request.
"We've got thousands of Canadians who are being abused through these notices."
'I'm not sleeping'
In 2015, the government started requiring that all internet providers forward copyright-infringement notices to customers suspected of illegally downloading content like TV shows and movies.
Some anti-piracy companies, working on behalf of production studios, have added to the notices a demand for a settlement fee. It typically amounts to hundreds of dollars, and recipients are told they could face legal action and bigger fines if they don't pay up.
The thing is, those companies don't know the suspect's actual identity, only the IP address linked to the illegal download.
Also, no one is obligated to pay a settlement fee. The government and internet providers have tried to spread that message, but some people are still unsure of their rights.
In August, Debra got her first email notice informing her that if she didn't pay a settlement fee for illegally downloading a porn video, she could face legal fines of up to $20,000.
She says she's innocent, but out of confusion and fear she paid a settlement fee of $257.40.
This week, she got another email accusing her of downloading five more porn videos.
"I'm not sleeping," says Debra, who refuses to pay more fees and fears the repercussions. "I have depression already and this is sending me over the edge."
CBC News spoke with the Canadian anti-piracy company that sent the emails, Canipre. It claims someone in Debra's home downloaded the videos.
Debra says her husband doesn't even know how to do illegal downloads, and no one else has access to her internet account. She thinks perhaps someone hacked her Wi-Fi.
"How long is this going to terrorize me?" she says. "I'm a good Canadian citizen."
It's not about the money
The government report said that even people wrongly accused of copyright infringement may feel compelled to pay the settlement fee.
The document was penned by a senior policy adviser for Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains.
It noted that the department had received calls from anxious Canadians about requests for payments. It also said that government officials had informed stakeholders early on that sending letters demanding fees was not consistent with the intent of the notice system.
"The goal of the regime is to discourage online infringement," stated the report.
CBC News asked the department why, despite all the concerns, it continues to allow piracy notices demanding cash.
The department responded that it "discourages" the request for settlement fees. It also said it will review the notice system during a coming parliamentary review of the Copyright Act, expected late this year or early next year.
In the meantime, it said it continues to monitor the notice system "and to educate consumers and engage with stakeholders to address concerns raised by Canadians over threatening notices."
'An easy fix'
Canipre's managing director, Barry Logan, says the government has never contacted him about notices asking for settlement fees.
He declined to do an interview on the issue. However, last year he told CBC News that Canipre had collected about $500,000 in settlement fees and that the notices it sends out aren't breaking any rules.
"Every single one of these claims can become a litigation at any time," said Logan.
Geist contends the government could easily put to rest concerns over the fee issue by clarifying what anti-piracy companies can and cannot say in their notices.
"This is a known problem that the government internally itself recognizes," he says. "There is an easy fix for this."