Canadians must stand on guard for a free and democratic internet. Look what happened in the U.S. when they let their guard down.
Earlier this year, a U.S. appeals court ruled that internet democracy was dead. That’s not the language that the court used: the technical term is “net neutrality.” Net neutrality means that everyone, even your humble scribe, has equal access to the internet; little bloggers, small businesses and big corporations alike.
While the ruling affects only the U.S., the effects will resonate around the world. Now money trumps net neutrality. The federal regulator dropped the ball, says Stanford law professor Barbara van Shewick on CBC radio’s tech program, Spark.
In the States, the telecommunications regulator is called the Federal Communications Commission similar to our Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. While past CRTC rulings have not pleased everyone, they have favoured net neutrality.
What keeps Internet Service Providers neutral is their status as an “open carrier.” This status benefits both ISPs and the general public alike because the content is separate from the service.
To illustrate, telephone companies are common carriers. Separation of content and service means the company can’t be sued for something a person says on the phone regardless of how defamatory or libellous it is. Nor can they give an advantage to advertisers with the promise that their annoying calls will getpreferential treatment.
Because of legal bungling, the FCC failed to argue that the internet is a common carrier. As such, ISPs in the U.S. can mess with content as much as they want, including censorship or preferential treatment. That will lead to a two-tiered internet, warns Professor van Shewick in which big players with lots of cash can get through where small start-up companies can’t.
Big players will use seduction to woo users rather than punishment. This is how it works. Big media will pay ISPs so that there data will be passed through to the user at no charge. As it now stands, subscribers have to pay for data, either in volume or by caps. For example, if a ISP carries a sponsored pay-for-view movie channel, users would not pay for that data whereas users would pay for competitors such as Netflix.
Given a choice of free data or paying for it, there is really not much of a choice. It would be very difficult for small start-ups to compete in a market where users would have to pay for their data, especially when start-ups have virtually no advertising revenue to begin with. When EBay and Google were just starting, it’s unlikely that they would have been able to raise venture capital under such conditions says van Shewick.
Some CRTC rulings in favour of ISPs have been warranted. I argued in an earlier column that data caps are a reasonable restriction on a limited resource such data. Data hogs should pay for their excess as should water hogs through water meters.
However, the CRTC must guard against any attempt to remove the status of open carrier from the internet. Failure to do so would not only limit freedom of expression and restrict charitable organizations, it would limit the growth of innovative technologies.