Net neutrality may become federal election issue in Canada
With the federal election in full swing, Lindsey Pinto is ramping up the fight for an accessible and open Internet. The communications manager for the Vancouver-based group OpenMedia.ca said Canadians need to be aware of the importance of net neutrality.
“We have some of the strongest net-neutrality regulations in the world, and we do not enforce them at all,” Pinto told the Georgia Straight by phone.
Net neutrality is the idea that the Internet should be a level playing field for all users. According to this principle, Internet service providers shouldn’t discriminate against applications or websites based on their content or other reasons. Whether it’s a blog about cats, a newspaper website, or peer-to-peer file-sharing, net neutrality says telecommunications companies shouldn’t be able to selectively block, speed up, or slow down access to this content.
“The Internet is our best source for democratic discourse,” Pinto said. “If Internet service providers can throttle content and give preferential treatment to content that they own or that they make deals with, it is going to stifle that innovation and prevent our economy growing in that capacity.”
This week, OpenMedia launched a campaign called Vote for the Internet. The group is encouraging voters to write to their local candidates and plans to survey party leaders about their positions on the Internet’s future.
OpenMedia has been at the forefront on digital issues such as net neutrality and usage-based billing for Internet service. The group says telecom companies are not playing by bandwidth-throttling rules put in place by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in 2009.
Under CRTC regulations, users who notice their Internet connections are being sped up or slowed down can file a complaint with the regulatory body. The CRTC will then investigate to see if the complaint is credible. If the complaint is valid, the CRTC will then ask the ISP for information about their traffic-management practices.
According to Pinto, this regulatory regime puts the onus on consumers to investigate problems with the complex networks run by telecom companies. She argued there is a better way to police net neutrality.
“We have been pushing for some time that the CRTC do audits of Internet service providers to make sure that they are complying with these traffic-management rules,” Pinto said. “So, essentially asking them to enforce their own framework.”
University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist runs Neutrality.ca, a website that chronicles the constant battle for net neutrality with telecom giants like Rogers, Bell, and Telus. He asserts the CRTC’s regulations are ineffective without proper enforcement.
“I would like to see the industry minister in particular use their office to find ways to conduct audits and provide either the resources or the direction to make sure that sort of thing happens,” Geist told the Straight by phone from Ottawa.
“While the [regulations] are pretty good, it ultimately falls onto individual Canadians to investigate and bring complaints. I think, given the lack of transparency in how networks run, that is a very tall order for most individual Canadians to do.”
Conservative industry minister Tony Clement’s staff said he was unavailable for an interview. But in the past, the Conservative party has said it does not support compliance audits and it believes the CRTC’s enforcement strategy is working.
Meanwhile, the federal NDP and Liberal parties both support mandatory net-neutrality audits by the CRTC to ensure that Internet providers obey the commission’s traffic-management guidelines.
Geist said there is another way to ensure Canadian ISPs are allowing unrestricted access of the web, arguing more competition between telecom companies would translate into an open and accessible Internet.
“Other countries in Asia and Europe—where they have got net-neutrality rules—in some ways, they have got enough competition that it is less of a concern,” Geist said.
Telecom giant Rogers said that having the CRTC or the government perform mandatory inspections on their traffic-management systems is not necessary.
“We regularly audit our technology,” Rogers spokesperson Patricia Trott told the Straight by phone from Toronto.
In January, the CRTC said it had received a number of complaints alleging the company was throttling traffic of peer-to-peer websites to some of its customers without providing 30 days notice.
Trott said Rogers monitors and limits upstream traffic to limit spam, viruses, and security threats.
“Rogers does manage upstream traffic for peer-to-peer file sharing applications. So, say if you were downloading a movie you wouldn’t notice anything different in the speed at all,” Trott said.
“It is just for the upstream that we actually slow it down. And that’s because it takes up a lot of room, and we want to make sure our customers’ services like e-mail and other things are not slowed down,” she added.
Trott insisted Rogers is transparent about its traffic-management practices, posting its policies on its website.
“Our customers have access to all over-the-top services, all Internet websites, and so on.”¦We recognize that our customers want to have access to all of the content that they want and so that is what we want to provide them,” Trott said.
Still, Pinto argued ISPs shouldn’t be controlling how people use the web. She’s urging Canadians to vote for candidates who support strong net-neutrality regulations.
“We need to have these rules in place,” Pinto said. “These big companies, they are as monolithic as governments are. And they are as threatening as government control is.”