The evolving discussion around net neutrality and what that will mean for the average consumer
By Ed Hitchins
Since the commercial debut of the Internet in 1993, it has made our lives both more complicated and at the same time, quite simple. Just a few finger taps have made the over 32 million users of the information superhighway in this country start to forget about the decades old practices of heading to the bricks and mortar establishments of the bank, the shopping mall, and even waiting on pizza delivery.
According to data from Statistics Canada in 2016, almost an entire day of an average Canadians’ week is spent on the Internet – ranging from texting on Facebook messenger to streaming an endless number of episodes from favourite television shows. The Internet has revolutionized just about everything – and anything – we do these days.
But, what if Internet providers started to slow down connections, or in some cases, control where and when you watched your favourite videos? How about charging you more in your monthly cell phone bill for using content or charging an over the top price for unlimited access to the sites?
For those of the nearly 90 per cent of adults that use the Internet in Canada on a day to day basis, the last few months have brought a new term: net neutrality. With recent decisions in the United States, there is talk that the days of net neutrality in Canada could be numbered.
The question for many remains: what is net neutrality?
It was first coined in 2003 by Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu. It is the principle would allow our elected officials to govern the internet. It emphasizes the importance for governments to make the Internet a necessity for its citizens, strictly prohibiting Internet service providers (ISPs) to discriminate against specific sites, regardless of content or location. ISPs are not allowed to charge more on sites which competing interests with the initial ISP.
Essentially, we’re talking about a free Internet. One where users can roam where they want, how they want and when they want.
The debate ranges across the globe over net neutrality: In Portugal, for example, cell phone and Internet packages are not that different from the cable packages offered by cable companies. Cellphone and data usage, one has to pay on top of regular cell phone use (as much as five euros per package) for different kinds of data usage. There’s one for messaging, one for music, and one for email.
In New Zealand, a ‘social pass’ is offered by cellphone provider Vodafone, with different rates varying on the sites you use. Unlimited access will charge an additional $9 extra on top of that.
In the United States, net neutrality has become a political tug of war, quite literally. In fact, it has been raging for nearly a decade.
In May 2010, then President and well-known proponent of net neutrality, Barack Obama, passed new rules that said ISPs could not block nor impose limits on users, keeping an election promise made when he was an Illinois Senator. The first ever rules to govern regular internet access, entitled the Open Internet Order, were implemented that December.
Verizon Communications, the largest wireless provider in the U.S., sued the Federal Communications Commission for the right to provide limited content to each subscriber from their network. It was a legal wrangling which lasted over six years.
However, in December, the current administration under Donald Trump called for an end to the Open Internet Order, thus creating speed bumps in the information superhighway.
But what about Canada, a country with its own laws and own regulations?
The Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has – under the current federal government of Justin Trudeau, maintained as of right now, they are committed to a free internet.
According to the CRTC’s website, former Chairman and CEO Jean-Pierre Blais said last April that the organization was committed to keeping the status quo, saying “a free and open Internet gives everyone a fair chance to innovate and for a vast array of content to be discovered by consumers. A free and open Internet also allows citizens to be informed and engage on issues of public concern without undue or inappropriate interference by those who operate those networks. Rather than offering its subscribers selected content at different data usage prices, Internet service providers should be offering more data at lower prices. That way, subscribers can choose for themselves what content they want to consume.”
With the replacement of Blais with former telecommunications executive Ian Scott late last year however, makes the situation very murky going forward. Scott has had experience with organizations such as Telus. Telus is the company that was famously outed in 2005 for blocking the content of its worker’s union, while their labour force was on strike.
John Lawford, council with the Public Information Advocacy Council in Ottawa, says that despite the changes, we shouldn’t see anything out of the ordinary going forward.
“We’ve had a number of changes over the years, like [Quebec’s] VideoTron that have confirmed we don’t favour traffic on the internet. Canada has pretty much directly resolved this and unless there are any changes to the communications act, I’d say we’re on pretty solid ground in Canada,” Lawford says.
It’s interesting then, that several companies, including Bell, Rogers, Telus and Cineplex, are pushing forward with an appeal to the CRTC in lieu of the recent decision down in the U.S. regarding content and just how the Internet is governed.
Calling themselves ‘FairPlay Canada’, the group’s aim is to disrupt the ongoing action of Internet piracy, where some users may stream off illegal sites, the so-called seedy underbelly of online content.
According to the group, they aim to protect the over 60,000 individuals who are employed by the entertainment and media industries, with such an industry generating some nearly $60 million a year.
“Obviously, they’ll push the CRTC to change the rules. I don’t see that being a successful argument, but they’ll try to do that,” says John Harris Stevenson, professor at the University of Toronto and research author of Hacking the Master Switch. The Role of infrastructure in Google’s Neutrality Strategy in the 2000s, published in 2017.
Stevenson says that there are obviously several road blocks ahead before users on this side of the border see potential potholes in the information superhighway.
“The Canadian and U.S. legislation and regulations are a bit different,” Stevenson says. “The CRTC [Since 2009] has set very clear rules in the telecommunications act against discrimination of internet traffic illegal. Those rules don’t exist the same way in the U.S., and that’s why the current administration was allowed to change the rules of the Internet.”
Bell, Canada’s largest telecommunications provider which generated $22 billion in revenue in 2017, is holding its annual general meeting in May. It may be almost a declaration of war against the free Internet, with the first appeal to the CRTC to change the rules pushed forward by FairPlay. One of the main components is to create an agency dubbed the Internet Piracy Review Agency which could create a list of sites internet companies could block without any consent from a court of law.
Toronto Free Net President Lee MacNeel posed the hypothetical: Bell, which operates streaming service CraveTV, could set up NetFlix, with their 5.2 million subscribers as of 2016, as a ‘blocked site’ for any of its users. It could charge the customer more to access it, or deliberately slow it down. And all of this would be done legally.
Non-Profit activist group SumOfUs.org represents what could be the last line of defence in the fight. Emma Pullman from the group will be attending that meeting. From her home base in Vancouver, Pullman says the potential formation of a piracy agency could have lingering sustained effects on the internet moving forward our digital age.
“What’s most concerning about this proposal given to the CRTC by FairPlay is that we’re seeing down a very slippery slope. This should be concerning for all Canadians going forward,” Pullman says.
Pullman also suggests that this could be the first bread crumb, with eventually all net neutrality being toppled in Canada. It could also have an effect on lower-income users. These users took up nearly 62 per cent of all internet usage according to data from Statistics Canada in 2012.
A potential outcome of the net neutrality debate could be free Internet. Since its inception in 1994, Toronto Free Net has prided itself on being a provider of, what the title says, free Internet. And according to MacNeel, his clientele will have to pay more for services if the net neutrality laws by the CRTC are lifted. This leaves MacNeel extremely concerned going forward.
“The impact would hurt lower income households,” MacNeel says.
“If customers wanted to use video services or telephony [internet technology over the phone] or cheaper services like Internet TV, they are going to face pressure and economic strain having to subscribe with one of the big guys.”