Canada’s internet remains flat, despite challenges

Canada remains a world-leader in keeping our internet equal for all. Challenges to tilt the internet in favour of special interests come from at home and abroad. Last month, Canada’s telecomm regulator ruled that all online data be treated equally.

The ruling comes after Videotron, a music streaming company, offered their wireless service to subscribers at no charge for data used. This practice, called “zero-rating,” is violation of net neutrality because content would be biased in favour of their service. Subscribers to other music streaming services would pay more. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruled the practice illegal.

In his ruling, the CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais suggested a less disingenuous tactic for Videotron:

“Rather than offering its subscribers selected content at different data-usage prices, Internet-service providers should be offering more data at lower prices,”

The ruling is a victory for the little-lobby-group-that-could, OpenMedia.ca (which I support financially).

“We just won again!,” they crowed in an email to me, “The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) just decided in favour of historic Net Neutrality rules that prevent Big Telecom from unfairly manipulating data caps to discriminate against certain apps and services.”

Michael Geist, professor of Internet and E-commerce Law, was equally enthused but more muted in his response:

Most notably, Canadian consumers and creators will benefit in the long term from the Net-neutrality policies.”

Canada’s firm support of net neutrality extends beyond a level playing field. Without it, giant telcomms could start to collect browsing habits of unsuspecting customers and sell them to advertisers for the purpose of targeting specific demographics.

The concept of a flat internet is vital to free expression and innovation. In an earlier column, I argued that net neutrality is fundamental to democracy:

Canadians must stand on guard for a free and democratic internet.”

Net neutrality in the U.S. has been tilting back and forth. In 2014, the U.S. appeals court ruled that the internet was not a “common carrier.” A common carrier is like a telephone line, simply a conduit to carry information. If telephones weren’t a common carrier, telephone companies could make it easier for businesses to access your phone than your friends and family.

The designation of common carrier is vital to net neutrality. Without that designation, internet service providers could effectively suppress content by making it more costly to view.

Sensibly, President Obama restored the designation of common carrier in 2015.

Now President Trump’s appointees to the U.S. telecomm regulator, called the FCC, intend to overturn net-neutrality in the U.S.

Canada faces a mixture of faux worry and resistance from the U.S.  A Trump-appointed advisor to the FCC, Roslyn Layton, said “My biggest concern for Canada is that you continue to add regulation that deters the incentive to invest,” Her fake concern for Canada not believable. Many big U.S. giants such as Netflix oppose the Trump initiatives because they don’t want their subscribers paying more than competitive video-streaming. They fear that U.S. telcomms will do what Videotron tried to do and tilt the internet in favour of their own services.

I have a feeling that Layton’s real concern is that U.S. tech start-ups will move to Canada where innovative technologies still have unbiased access to the internet.

We Must Stand on Guard for a Democratic Internet

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.

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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.