A lost opportunity for openness

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Last month, in both the speech from the Throne and release of the budget, the government had a perfect opportunity to address Canada's deficit in Internet openness or "Net Neutrality." It should have seized this opportunity to present an openness agenda. If the Conservatives are committed to lifting foreign ownership rules for the telecommunication industry, as mentioned in their speech, why aren't they first ensuring that Canadians enjoy open access to all the Internet has to offer from our current providers? Seems like they are putting the cart before the horse, or rather the carriers before the users.

In what many consider a major victory for the open media movement, last fall the CRTC developed new "traffic management" guidelines. However, under these new guidelines, the CRTC will not enforce its own framework and instead, the onus falls on the consumer to file a complaint and prove that an ISP is unjustly throttling (degrading) the Internet. It is unfair to force consumers to somehow obtain the technical and policy expertise to make their case effectively before the CRTC, and to also out maneuver some of most powerful businesses in the country.

Mixed Bag

Unlike the U.S. and other countries, several Internet Service Providers in Canada continue to limit access to content and services in this country. As Telecom Law expert Michael Geist points out, it's currently "a decidedly mixed bag" in terms of how ISP's are reacting to the CRTC's new guidelines. Four of the dominant six providers continue to throttle Internet use, and two of them do not make it easy to find their traffic management disclosures despite the CRTC's transparency rule.

The transparency guideline calls for ISPs to make it known how their traffic management practices "will affect a user's Internet experience, including the specific impact on speeds."

While Bell and Rogers do reveal their practices coupled, albeit with a positive spin, Shaw and Cogeco do not reveal the speeds users can expect when they are throttled. This is important because when users experience artificial slowness, they often just assume that it is a problem with the website they are using. If users have knowledge of the speeds that are associated with throttling, then they will be better equipped to know when they have fallen victim to throttling.

It also appears that Rogers and Cogeco fail to limit their throttling activities to instances of actual congestion, instead opting for constant throttling of certain applications and the content that runs through them. Such throttling practices are unnecessarily damaging to innovators and consumers who use these applications. Clearly the guidelines alone are not enough to ensure that Canadians have open access to the Internet.


The do-nothing approach

Unfortunately the government appears to have once again adopted a do-nothing approach. The government's speech from the throne made no attempt to address Canada's Internet openness deficit, despite overwhelming support for Net Neutrality from the other major parties along with a clear majority of Canadians.

When asked about Net Neutrality in the House of Commons last year, Industry Minister Tony Clement said he is "watching those providers very closely" and does not "want to see a situation where consumers are put at risk in terms of their access to the Internet." Clement should be aware that several dominant ISPs are presently limiting access to bittorent applications and the content that runs through them. This limits consumer choice, and stifles innovation and social change.

Clement can stop Internet Service Providers from controlling our use of the Internet by asking the CRTC to conduct regular compliance audits of ISP traffic management practices. This would effectively make Net Neutrality a practical reality in Canada. It should be up to users, not ISPs, to decide which applications and services Canadians use on the Internet.

Canadians can send a letter to Tony Clement here.
Steve Anderson is the national coordinator for OpenMedia.ca. He is a contributing author of Censored 2008 and Battleground: The Media and has written for The Tyee, Toronto Star, Epoch Times, Common Ground, rabble.ca and Adbusters.

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Media Links is a syndicated column supported by CommonGround, TheTyee, rabble.ca,and VUE Weekly.


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