The Night is Dark and Full of Torrents: University of Calgary BitTorrent Restriction


The University of Calgary is in the news for two reasons:

(1) They have been outed as an academic institution that does not believe in the use of the Oxford Comma



(2) They've jumped on the Trump bandwagon and are taking steps to “close parts of the Internet”.

That's right. Apparently, the University of Calgary (U of C) is in the business of blocking internet traffic now.

A recent CBC news article, reported the University of Calgary has changed its IT Policy to prevent open access to BitTorrent sites using the open and in-residence Wi-Fi networks on campus, requiring users to prove they have a "legitimate" need to be granted access.

Legitimate uses - like my term paper:

Dirty Faces, Furs, and the Winter: Gender Politics in Game of Thrones

I would not be the least bit surprised if that was an actual term paper title.

But I digress.

U of C defends the policy saying, they're not "[...] in the business of piracy, they don't want to facilitate that in any way so they banned it completely."

Aside from just picturing a university president as a pirate....

I find this statement extremely problematic. Offering WiFi is NOT getting into the business of copyright infringement, just like offering WiFi isn't getting into the business of producing pornography. Providing access to the internet and providing access to copyright content are two distinct things.

BitTorrent sites, although they have become synonymous with illegal downloading (aka copyright infringement), are used for legitimate uses. If you've developed a moral aversion to copyright infringement, you may use your friendly neighbourhood BitTorrent site to download works that are in the public domain. Like... ya know... books... for reading.


I seem to recall doing a lot of that when I was in university.

Also WikiLeaks has used BitTorrent sites to release and transfer some of their larger segments of data. Whether you think WikiLeaks serves a vital democratic function, it's a criminal organization, or you're somewhere in between. The point remains, BitTorrent sites are used for the flow of ideas and information.

I also seem to recall going to protests and having opinions about... things...when I was in university. Is U of C monitoring internet traffic of their students using the WiFi networks? Clearly. Would a student concerned about their privacy enough to use a VPN be blocked as well?

Suddenly the irony of a university preventing students from accessing books and information is overwhelming.

<< insert appropriate graphic here >>

By Thegreenj (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The typical argument against this "legitimate uses" argument is: "Yeah... but NOBODY uses BitTorrent sites to legally download stuff. The majority of the use is people downloading Game of Thrones."

Really? That sounds like a claim that would be extremely difficult to back up. Show me your numbers.

Oh... you don't have any.

The reason you don't have any is there is little to no commercial interest or reason to do so. This means there's no magic ratio of legitimate use vs illegitimate use available.

Which means the University of Calgary didn't make this decision based on numbers, but on fear.

Fear of what? Fear that the copyright landscape in Canada is changing and that they'll get caught in the net.

The Notice-and-Notice Scheme, which I wrote about in a previous post, requires ISPs to shuttle a nasty letter from a copyright owner to a downloader telling them "we know you've infringed our rights to this material - pay us or we'll sue you for lots of money". Sounds really bad when you say it like that.

The real issue is that universities, like the University of Calgary, are the ones getting these nasty letters because it's their internet connection being used to access these sites. Universities receive the notices and either throw them away (because it would the difficult for a copyright owner to hold the university responsible for the actions of a student on public university WiFi) OR attempt to pass the notice on to the student (which is an administrative nightmare and an extreme inconvenience).

The Notice-and-Notice Scheme was created by the Copyright Modernization Act. As Katy Anderson with OpenMedia said...

"There is nothing in Canada's Copyright Modernization Act that requires restricting access to websites or blocking content, it's an arbitrary and unfair restriction which has no legal basis,"

Preach it.

I also think the U of C has one eye on a case headed for trial in Federal Court right now relating to Set-Top Boxes. It's called Bell Canada et al v 1326030 Ontario Inc dba et al  - I'm calling it the iTVBox Case (because words are long).

Bell and Rogers are suing Set-Top Box sellers for authorizing infringement of copyright. Bell/Rogers argue that because the Set-Top Box (aka Android Box) sellers provide the means by which users illegally access material protected by copyright, they ought to be held accountable under the Act

Authorizing infringement of copyright is in and of itself an act of infringement - Oh yes, and it's a sticky wicket. Only services that primarily enable acts of infringement are caught by this provision (s.3(1) Copyright Act).

BUT this would never apply to a university providing WiFi to its student? Would it?

The problem is this is a developing area of law. In their Statement of Claim, Bell/Rogers use the word "inducement" to infringe copyright. This language isn't in the Copyright Act, but the definition for "countenance" in relation to copyright infringement includes words like, “give approval to; sanction, permit, favour, encourage.”

I think U of C is afraid that Bell/Rogers will have their way and that the definition of authorizing infringement will be widened, ever so slightly, to include implicit authorization (meaning U of C knew of the infringement, did nothing active to curb it, and as a result Bell/Rogers suffered damages and U of C should pay).

I understand this fear, but I am gravely disappointed U of C pro-actively took steps to avoid being caught up in copyright infringement actions. Whether they did it for the sake of administrative convenience or whether they did it out of a genuine and deeply held belief that copyright infringement is the most pressing of modern concerns, I would have thought their interest in academic freedom and student independence would have prevented them from taking such rash action.

To be honest with you, and I say this with the deepest respect, the University of Calgary backed down from a bully. Wait not a bully.... a mere shadow of a bully who might possibly be coming around the corner.

At a time when people in positions of extreme power are talking about closing up parts of the internet, I expected our academic institutions to respond with bravery - not cowardice.

But it wasn't just cowardice. By pro-actively taking a step like this U of C has made a strong statement on academic freedom: "When it's inconvenient, we just quash it."

In response to criticism, U of C vice-president has said the university isn't stopping people from accessing BitTorrent, they're just making people think twice about their usage. 

Well, hey, we're not stopping people from having access to books. We're just making them tell us what books they want to access and why and ask us for permission to access them. But we're not stopping them.

The night is dark and full or terrors - I just didn't think the university would be one of them.

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  1. Ugh... having played in this game called internet, attempting to block internet usually doesn't work well, for a semi literate population like a university, I suspect it will work even less well.


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