Bell Media president says using VPNs to skirt copyright rules is stealing

Watching U.S. Netflix in Canada by using location-hiding services such as VPNs is stealing and needs to be more frowned upon, the new president of Bell Media says.

Mary Ann Turcke says skirting copyright laws hurts Canadian jobs and culture

With the help of unblocking services, thousands of Canadians are watching Netflix shows restricted to other countries. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

Watching U.S. Netflix in Canada by using location-hiding services such as VPNs is stealing and needs to be more frowned upon, the new president of Bell Media says.

At a keynote speech at the Telecom Summit in Toronto on Wednesday, Mary Ann Turcke said Canadians who skirt copyright laws by finding ways of accessing digital content hurt Canadian culture and jobs and need to stop.

"It has to become socially unacceptable to admit to another human being that you are VPNing into U.S. Netflix," she said, "like throwing garbage out your car window — you just don't do it."

Streaming services like Netflix offer customers access to a list of content based on their location. Location is determined by a device's IP address, but a service known as a Virtual Private Network or VPN can fiddle with that and give Canadians, for example, access to Netflix's U.S. catalogue, which is perceived by many to have more, and better, content.

Rather than pushing for more regulation from government or the CRTC to ban the practice, she called on the industry to work together to root out the problem, and to insist that Canadians frown on it the same way they would many other types of illegal activity.

Canadian television produces $6 billion a year to Canada's GDP and employs 125,000 people.

"Not only does society not scold anyone for stealing content — we feature 'how to' articles in our national newspapers educating the masses on how to get around copyright law."

Contentious issue

As head of Canada's largest media company, with 106 radio stations and 30 local TV stations across the country, Turcke finds herself at the forefront of the piracy debate not even two months into getting the job.

In her speech, Turcke painted herself not only as an unabashed champion for Canadian television, but also one who's more optimistic than many about its future.

Far from the accepted narrative that television viewers are skewing older as young Canadians turn elsewhere, Turcke said the average age of a CTV News viewer has been getting younger for several years now.

So she remains confident that the industry has a future. "Delighting Canadians means making it easy to find great content — on any screen — anywhere," she said. "Just make it easy. Viewers are demanding simplicity, and they will seek it out."

Her speech suggests she doesn't see the television industry as being engaged in a war with, as she puts it, "the dreaded Netflix," but rather she thinks the industry needs to adapt to give Canadians what they want, how they want it.

And she used two examples from within her own family to illustrate the point. First, she cited her 15-year-old daughter, who upon returning from the U.S. one day decided she was "bound and determined" to get around Netflix's geolocation rules for Canada because she had become used to the offerings available on the U.S. service.

"I won't spare you the parenting that ensued — she was told she was stealing and that it was like stealing anything else," Turcke said. "Suffice to say there is no more VPNing."

Future looks bright, Turcke says

In another anecdote, she described how watching her 20-year-old daughter and her roommates decide on whether or not to get cable television in their dorm room made her more confident in the industry's future. 

"They will get TV — because they want to watch good content, period," Turcke said.

She said she looks forward to working with the CRTC on an upcoming hearing on so-called "discoverability" of digital content. 

"Discoverability does not mean — at least not to me, and I hope not to any of you — watching whatever you want for free," she said.

While the industry faces many financial challenges, Turcke's speech suggested the head of Canada's largest media company is confident that it can find a way to make it work for everyone.

"The economic model that gets us from here to there is intimidating, but that is what we get paid to figure out," she said.


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