The words Net neutrality do not appear in the campaign platforms of the federal Liberal and Conservative parties. The federal NDP and Greens, on the other hand, include Net neutrality in their platforms. The NDP say it’s vital to protecting Canadians’ ability to access the Internet at a flat rate of payment and with transparent rules.
Richard Rosenberg, a UBC professor emeritus of computer science, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that there are different views on whether or not Internet service providers should be allowed to limit the number of bits that are moved over a network. Proponents of Net neutrality argue that consumers should determine which content, services, and applications they want to use. They say that telecommunications giants shouldn’t have the right to control which files are sent.
But this is precisely what Bell Canada is doing, spurring a complaint to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in April by the Canadian Association of Internet Providers. “All of this means that certain kinds of downloading will be different than other kinds,” said Rosenberg, who is also president of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. “So the Net will not be neutral with respect to the bits that are moving on it.”
The issue hasn’t gotten much attention from the mainstream media during the election campaign, but it’s a vitally important topic, according to Steve Anderson, the Vancouver-based national coordinator of the Campaign for Democratic Media. In a phone interview with the Straight, Anderson said that Bell angered some of its customers and third-party ISPs by “throttling” BitTorrent, a technology that efficiently distributes video and other content over the Internet. He said that if the Net were neutral, telecommunications companies wouldn’t be allowed to do this.
“We’ve been calling on the CRTC to look at all of the ISPs and have a public hearing on this issue of Net neutrality,” Anderson said.
He noted that Bell distributes its own video content in competition with the independents who use BitTorrent. The Campaign for Democratic Media, which is a nonprofit media-reform network, filed an intervention with the CRTC in July, arguing that Bell’s throttling of Internet traffic violated the Telecommunications Act.
In a submission to the CRTC, Bell defended the practice as a measure necessary to ensure “a better allocation of bandwidth for all users that share a common network”¦and better experience on the network for all users during peak Internet usage periods”. The company claimed that it was necessary to “shape” traffic in order to address the small minority of users who shared large files and slowed down access for everyone else. Bell Canada spokespeople didn’t return calls from the Straight on the subject of Net neutrality.
Part of the problem, from Anderson’s perspective, is that the CRTC doesn’t regulate the Internet. He claimed that the CRTC’s lack of jurisdiction could have profound consequences in three areas: competitiveness, innovation, and on-line choice. Anderson raised the possibility of gatekeepers charging organizations fees to put up Web sites. He said that educational institutions, in particular, could be hit hard because they might one day face extra levies to gain access to students. He also cited the potential for Internet companies to make investments in vain because their products and services could end up being restricted.
“It has implications on pretty much every realm of our society,” Anderson said. He added that the CRTC is expected to rule on the Canadian Association of Internet Providers’ complaint before the end of October.
In June, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association filed a submission to the CRTC expressing concern “that technical and business decisions made by Bell Canada will negatively impact Canadians’ ability to use the internet as a tool for expression”. The BCCLA brief also stated that it’s “clearly unacceptable” for Bell Canada to “throttle” its Gateway Access Service, which other ISPs use to connect their customers to the Internet, to drive revenue for its other business interests.
Speaking in the House of Commons in April, NDP MP Charlie Angus alleged that consumers and entrepreneurs are at the mercy of telecommunications giants, which can choke off traffic from smaller competitors. “What steps will the Minister of Industry take to ensure that consumers who paid for access are not going to be ripped off, that badly needed competition will not be squeezed off, and send a message to the telecom giants that they have no business monkey-wrenching with the free flow of information?” Angus demanded.
Industry Minister Jim Prentice pointed out in his reply that the Internet does not fall within the government’s jurisdiction. “We continue to monitor the discussion that is taking place,” he said, “but there is no regulation of the relationship between Internet providers and consumers.”
Angus replied that the minister’s “hands-off approach” would be detrimental to innovation in Canada. “Net neutrality is the cornerstone of an innovative economy,” he said, “because it is the consumer and the innovator who need to be in the driver’s seat, not Ma Bell, not Rogers, not Vidéotron. They have no business deciding what information is in the fast lane or what information is in the slow lane.”
Anderson said that the Campaign for Democratic Media will release a report on the positions of each of the federal political parties before the October 14 election.