Last week, the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Council (CRTC) made a decision that amounts to one small step for net neutrality and one large step for Internet users. But that’s only if you managed to catch a headline that, for the most part, passed unnoticed.
First, let’s get some terms straight: net neutrality is the concept that Internet service providers (ISPs) shouldn’t favour certain users or applications over others. There are two ways in which this preferential treatment can manifest: traffic shaping, when an ISP funnels bandwidth to different types of applications (for example, making email faster and peer-to-peer software slower) and throttling, when an ISP intentionally lowers the speed of an Internet connection.
The CRTC decided on October 26 to allow ISPs to continue traffic shaping, but only if they inform users when they do so. The decision also bars ISPs from traffic shaping that would interfere with time-sensitive items, such as Skype or streaming media.
Traffic shaping and throttling is happening – right here, in Canada. Bell, Rogers, and a few other telecom providers have justified slowing Internet connections down at peak times of the day, claiming that a small percentage of customers have been congesting their networks by using peer-to-peer applications. In 2005, a scandal broke out when Telus, then caught up in a conflict with the Telecommunications Workers Union, blocked its Internet subscribers from accessing a pro-union web site. In April 2008, the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) and its members discovered that Bell Canada had begun slowing down the traffic destined for the customers of CAIP’s members.
The enforcement of this system depends on complaints that the CRTC receives. In other words, the onus would be on individuals and companies to lodge a complaint with the CRTC. Although this is not a proactive approach, Marc Raboy, the Beaverbrook Chair in Ethics, Media and Communications in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill, says that it is not possible for the CRTC to monitor all the traffic shaping and throttling that occurs. However, Raboy notes that the complaints process involves time and resources not often available to the ordinary person.
It is important that government introduce legislation to categorically forbid these discriminatory practices and maintain neutrality on the Internet, so that users, not ISPs, decide how to use it. In a world without net neutrality, user access to Internet content would be up for grabs to the highest bidder. In other words, telecom companies would be able to interfere with the transmission of content, such as TV shows delivered over the Internet, that compete with services the ISPs offer, like cable television. In a situation bereft of strict rules governing net neutrality, telecom companies would be able to extort money from online content and application providers, and favour the web sites and services that they own or with whom they strike special deals. This would essentially stifle innovation, making smaller competitors – like Google was once upon a time – unable to compete and incapable of succeeding despite their merit.
For these reasons, the CRTC should use the power given to it through the Telecommunications Act to regulate retail Internet services, using net neutrality as a guiding principle. The point would not be for the government to regulate the Internet, but to take the ability away from ISPs to interfere or discriminate arbitrarily and with impunity when it comes to Internet access.
Laurin Liu is a U1 History and Philosophy student. Shape her traffic at firstname.lastname@example.org.