Internet service providers threaten Net neutrality in Canada
By Steve Anderson
The open Internet is under threat by the very companies that bring it into our homes and workplaces—Internet service providers. These big telecommunications companies want to become gatekeepers of the Internet, deciding on-line winners and losers, and making our on-line choices for us. Big telecom companies are trying to do away with the governing guidelines of the Internet called “Net neutrality” (or “common carriage”). Net neutrality requires that ISPs not discriminate between content and services. Net neutrality protects our ability to direct our own on-line activities, and also maintains a level playing field for on-line innovation.
Bell Canada and other major Internet service providers are already slowing down (“throttling”) on-line peer-to-peer applications. In essence, this means we, the users of the Internet, already do not have access to all the Internet has to offer. If you’re trying to watch a CBC show on-line and it takes a day to download, as audience members reported last February, the limitations are quite real. In addition to manipulating its own customers’ use of the Internet, Bell also “shapes” traffic passing through its network from independent ISPs like Teksavvy Solutions, thereby also limiting one of its few competitors from offering open access to the Internet.
With the launch of Bell’s unthrottled video store that competes with independent content using P2P applications, we already have a de facto tiered Internet in many markets; if you use independent peer-to-peer applications you have to deal with a slow-lane Internet with unreliable service. This Internet throttling is not only limiting media choice, it is also scares away innovation—not something we should be doing in this economic climate.
Scaring away innovation and choice
If you were an on-line innovator that wanted to utilize P2P services, why would you start your service in Canada where it is uncertain whether or not you and the users of your services will have open access to the applications you need? Will the next NowPublic, Rabble.ca, or Raincity Studios be scared away by the impending ISP gatekeepers?
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is set to uphold the open Internet by punishing Comcast for throttling service. Furthermore, President Barack Obama has put forth a plan that supports the open Internet, and the newly elected Congress is poised to make Net neutrality the law. If this “throttling” persists we can expect some innovators to move their activities south of the border.
Canadians telecommunications regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, has thus far adopted a do-nothing approach, allowing Bell Canada and other ISPs to continue throttling the Internet.
The open Internet has a chance
The CRTC could redeem itself; this July, the CRTC is holding a hearing on “traffic management”. The hearing will help determine whether Bell and other big telecoms can continue to “throttle”, and thus increasingly control Internet traffic. The decisions made by the CRTC will signal to both innovators and investors what Canada’s approach to on-line communication will be. From now until February 23, the CRTC is allowing citizens to submit comments on the upcoming hearing.
A broad SaveOurNet.ca coalition has formed to fight for the open Internet. SaveOurNet.ca is calling all Canadians to tell the CRTC which path they want Canada to take.
The original deadline for submissions for the hearing was February 16, but the CRTC extended the deadline after consumer groups complained that they did not have enough time to consider data recently released by Canadian ISPs. According to the CBC, the figures reveal “annual growth in total traffic volume declined for two consecutive years from 2005-06 to 2007-08 for five of the seven ISPs”. This data significantly undermines arguments made by the ISPs that they need to manage networks in order to prevent congestion.
If traffic growth is slowing, then it is hard to imagine why the ISPs need to suddenly selectively throttle Internet traffic. The fact that ISPs are slowing access to Internet technologies that compete with their own services seems like more than just a coincidence.
Considering the challenges facing our economy, we should actively support our homegrown social, cultural, and economic innovation, not punish it by allowing big telecommunication companies to strangle the lifeblood of innovation—the open Internet.
Steve Anderson is a cofounder of the SaveOurNet.ca coalition, the national coordinator of the Campaign for Democratic Media, and the author of the syndicated Media Links column. He can be reached on Facebook and Twitter.