Saving Canada's digital soul

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The great value of the open Internet is that it allows us to envision and, in fact, produce a more democratic media system.

But the open Internet is under threat by the very companies that bring it into our homes and workplaces, Internet Service Providers (ISPs). These big telecommunication companies want to become the gatekeepers of the Internet, charging hefty fees to reach large audiences, as they do with other mediums.

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 Internet service providers not discriminate - including speeding up or slowing down web content - based on its source, ownership or destination. Net neutrality protects our ability to direct our own online activities, and also maintains a level playing field for online innovation and social change.

The activity of limiting or slowing access to specific content and services is referred to as "traffic shaping" or "throttling," and it fundamentally changes how the Internet works. According to Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, ISPs already have a "history of blocking access to contentious content (Telus), limiting bandwidth for alternative content delivery channels (Rogers), and raising the prospect of levying fees for priority content delivery (Bell)."

If we let big ISPs have their way, media producers, online entrepreneurs and social change makers will need to ask Bell, Rogers and other big ISPs for permission and pay large sums of cash to effectively distribute content or innovate.

Revolt of independents, capitulation of CRTC

The importance of net neutrality was made clear when Bell Canada's traffic "throttling" began limiting users' ability to view the CBC's hit show "Canada's Next Great Prime Minister." Some users claimed it took over a day to download the show. 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.

The Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) stood up for independent ISPs by sending a formal request to the CRTC urging them to order Bell to cease and desist from throttling its competitors' Internet service. Unfortunately, on Nov. 20th the CRTC ruled that Bell could continue to throttle independent ISPs who interconnect with its network. The CRTC's ruling in the CAIP proceeding acts to limit competing ISPs from offering differential services, like providing access to the open Internet.

The battle continues. The CRTC recently announced a new public hearing on the wider issue of traffic shaping ("throttling"). Many of the anti-consumer aspects of the Bell/CAIP decision could be reversed if the traffic-shaping hearing comes down in the public's favour.

Canada as backwater of online innovation?

When social entrepreneurs and public interest organizations in Vancouver, the most concentrated media market in North America, aimed to create an innovative online news organization, The Tyee, they didn't have to ask for ISP permission. Likewise, when a new global, independent news organization, Toronto based, wanted to experiment with real time online debate formats, they did not need to pay expensive distribution costs; they just began streaming their content. When wanted to create its own online national TV station, they didn't need to pay exorbitant fees for a TV station, they just innovated using the online tools available.

These projects would not exist if the Internet was not an open medium. What's worse, the next Tyee, TheREALnews, or won't exist if we don't have an open neutral network. When we lose the open Internet, we lose the freedom to innovate.

I was recently on a panel with representatives from Bell and Telus where both expressed a willingness and interest to provide special access to a new Internet fast lane for media and technology companies that can afford to pay extra fees. This is an astonishing and arrogant admission considering these companies have consistently claimed that they simply manage their networks to provide the best service for their customers.

These ISPs want to open a new revenue stream by providing a two-tiered Internet: a fast lane for those who can pay and a slow lane for those who can't.

New entrepreneurs, online innovators, civil society groups and independent media will likely not have the capital to pay for fast lane access. The end result will be a medium more like TV where you have to pay off telecom gatekeepers just to reach the Canadian people, thereby placing big telecom and their deep pocketed partners (not users) firmly in the driver's seat.

A tax on innovation

The loss of Canadian grown online innovation is not hypothetical - relies heavily on freely available web tools like Skype for their video interviews. Skype, like most innovative tools available on the web, is dependent on a neutral, open Internet. Because Canada's regulators have thus far adopted a do-nothing approach towards big telecom, can't be sure if their Skype video problems are caused by big telecom interference or not.

Conversely, the telecom regulator in the U.S. (the FCC) has upheld the principles of net neutrality and president-elect Obama, and the newly elected U.S. congress are now poised to make net neutrality law. So why should TheREALnews stay in Canada where big telecom can throttle access to online services when they can get reliable open access to the Internet in the U.S.? The more often this question is asked, the more Canada becomes the backwater of online innovation. In these tough economic times, we can ill afford such a fate.

The battle lines

To be clear, this is not a battle between big ISPs and CAIP, this is not a battle between ISPs and Google, nor is it just a battle between ISPs and their own customers. This is a battle between a handful of big telecom companies on one side and online innovation, free speech, small business, independent media, artists and civil society on the other - it's a handful of big telecom companies against the rest of Canada.

In these times of great political, economic, and social instability, we need all the innovation we can find. Now more than ever we need an open medium that can facilitate a wide public discussion on the key issues of our time. The CRTC and parliamentarians can do their part by enacting and enforcing policies that support the open Internet.

The bottom line is that after the dust has settled either big telecom will regulate the Internet, or Internet users will determine their own online activities.

Who will control Canada's digital soul?

More about this issue at:

Media Links is a syndicated column supported by CommonGround, The Tyee,, The Vancouver Observer, and VUE Weekly.

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