This piece was co-authored by Steve Anderson and David Christopher and was originally published in the September edition of the CCPA Monitor
Five commissioners on the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hold the fate of the Internet in their hands.
Some time after September 15, the FCC will decide whether to abandon the principle of net neutrality—the decades old rule that all online data should be treated equally. Doing so would allow large telecom conglomerates to create an Internet slow lane for everyone except deep-pocketed media giants. Nothing less than the future of the Internet is at stake. The FCC decision will directly impact over 250 million Internet users in the U.S. and will have serious consequences for Canada and other countries, too.
Net neutrality dates back to the earliest days of the Internet. In practice it means that Internet service providers (ISPs) are not allowed to speed up or slow down the transmission of different types of online content to their customers. Neutrality ensures you can visit independent news websites such as rabble.ca or The Tyee and expect them to load just as rapidly and reliably as CTV News or Rogers Sportsnet, which are owned by large ISP conglomerates.
Net neutrality also empowers Internet users to pick and choose exactly what they want to read and watch online. For Internet innovators and entrepreneurs, it is what enables them to operate on a level playing field with entrenched incumbents. In both cases, neutrality is a big part of what makes the Internet so conducive to the spread of new ideas and new ways of communicating.
But if net neutrality is so beneficial for Internet users and innovators, why is it now under threat? The answer is that giant telecom conglomerates have always hated the idea. They would like to force content providers to pay expensive new ‘prioritization’ fees to ensure their content reliably reaches Internet users.
Larger and richer companies such as YouTube and Facebook shrug off the idea of new fees as a necessary evil to ensure their websites load reliably. But smaller, independent companies and services—the “next Netflix” if you will—would find it much more difficult to pay, condemning them to an Internet slow lane that makes the services they want to supply much less attractive. This situation holds content providers to ransom for the sake of unfairly maximizing Big Telecom profits.
The end result? Without net neutrality, many independent websites and services could be forced to shut down, harming innovation and significantly narrowing the range of voices that Internet users have access to. The effects would be disastrous for democratic discourse; the Internet itself could end up looking a lot more like cable TV instead of the open platform for content and debate that it is today.
This is not a hypothetical debate. The U.S. telecom company Sprint is already selling a TV-style wireless plan that only allows people to connect to certain websites such as Facebook instead of the full access we are accustomed to. But there is good news in the fact that 1.1 million people participated in the FCC consultation on net neutrality, making it the single most commented-on issue in the commission’s history.
Nor is this a U.S.-only issue. Canada, among other countries, will be greatly affected by the decisions of our large neighbour to the south. We also face serious net neutrality challenges of our own.
Manitoba-based researcher Ben Klass has highlighted how Bell is breaking net neutrality rules by stifling alternative mobile services. For example, Klass revealed that users streaming Netflix on their Bell mobile device have to pay 800% more than they do to stream Bell-owned programming such as CTV News. Rogers also has its own scheme to ensure that non-Rogers content is more expensive for its wireless customers to access. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has begun an investigation into how Bell manages traffic on its various Internet platforms and whether the company is violating the principle of net neutrality.
Thanks to the thousands of people who took part in OpenMedia’s Save our Net campaign, Canada already has relatively strong net neutrality protections. Unfortunately, the CRTC is demonstrating a worrying willingness to undermine them. As part of its Let’s Talk TV consultation, the regulator even asked whether customers would be willing to pay extra for online content if it didn’t count as part of their data cap.
We hope the CRTC does the right thing by rejecting a multi-speed Internet. Based on the response to our campaign, most Canadians feel the same.
Canada’s Internet regulator should prevent telecom giants like Bell and Rogers from unfairly stifling services they don’t own. That means aggressively protecting net neutrality for wireless networks and providers. It also means ensuring that on wired networks large broadcasting companies are not allowed to shape policy in a way that hurts innovation online.
This debate is particularly important because although the Internet is a global phenomenon it’s regulated at the domestic level. As a result, we can expect to see more and more countries debating rules for net neutrality in the coming years, as Internet users and Big Telecom companies square off in the battle for the Internet.
Steve Anderson is the executive director of OpenMedia.ca, a community-based organization that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet. David Christopher is the communications manager with OpenMedia.ca. For more information on this issue visit OpenMedia.org/SlowLane.
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