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For the freedom of the net

Exploring net neutrality across the U.S. and Canada

On December 14 2017, the American Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed net neutrality laws which were implemented in 2015. Opponents to the outcome of the vote have since prepared legal arguments to counter this decision. One states has also introduced its own bill (California), while two are preparing to do so (New York, Washington). On top of that, Senate Democrats only need one more vote to pass a resolution of disapproval. If Democrats manage to convince one more Republican Senator to join the resolution of disapproval, it will have to go through Congress, which has a large Republican majority, as well as be ratified by Trump, who could veto it. While the battle for net neutrality has not been lost yet, it is far from being won.

Why is net neutrality so important?

Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, coined the term ‘network neutrality’ in his 2003 paper, “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination”. Widely known as ‘net neutrality’, the term refers to the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should enable access to all online content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites. In 2015, the Obama administration enacted regulations to protect net neutrality. Since 2015, however, the FCC has changed hands. Itis now led by Ajit Pai, a former Verizon executive; one of the main ISPs in the United States. Under his leadership, the FCC initiated the repeal of the 2015 regulations.

In Canada and abroad, internet users will be affected by this change in American legislation. Without net neutrality, large corporations would be able to slow down access to certain types of Internet or data usage. This will give a competitive advantage to certain websites over others, namely those able to purchase access to internet ‘fast lanes.’  Should the new regulations be put into effect, the most immediate consequence to global internet users would likely be a rise in prices for popular services such as Netflix and Spotify. Laura Tribe, the executive director of Open Media, explained: “if Netflix has to pay extra to make sure that it’s in Internet fast lane in the United States, they’re going to have to pass those fees onto their customers. And it is really unlikely that they will limit that to just their American customer base when they can diffuse it over to a larger audience.” In addition, some websites may simply disappear; non-American websites and websites refusing or unable to pay ISPs could become less accessible to Americans, an incredible large market.

Net neutrality in Canada

There could also be legislative consequences for Canada, which has regulations preventing major Internet providers, like Bell and Rogers, from breaking net neutrality. Major Canadian corporations wish to change these laws, allegedly in order to fight against piracy. According to documents obtained by Canadaland in December, Bell is leading a coalition of companies, including Rogers, Cineplex, and Cinémas Guzzo, that intends to pressure the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)  into creating a not-for-profit corporation that would maintain a list of websites peddling pirated content, and force all internet service providers in the country to block access to them.

According to Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and Internet policy expert, the implementation of this new corporation, called the “Internet Piracy Review Agency” (IPRA), could lead to much more. “If you make the argument that you’re in a position to block for these purposes (i.e. pirated content), it seems pretty obvious that we’re going to see other groups say that you ought to be blocking for other purposes.” Geist further stated that website blocking may not be effective against piracy, as he is not aware of any study demonstrating the contrary. The scholar also pointed to the fact that blocking one website creates a vacuum, leading to the creation of many more websites, further rendering this potential policy inefficient.

 A spokesperson for Navdeep Bains, the Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development stated: “Net neutrality is a critical issue of our times, much like freedom of the press and freedom of expression that came before it. That’s why our government has a strong net neutrality framework in place through the CRTC. While other parts of the world are focused on building walls, we’re focused on opening doors.” Since the article was published in December, neither have Bell nor other corporations cited in the documents made public statements regarding the issue.  If the FCC bill were to be put into action in the U.S., a domino effect could lead many countries to follow the American example. Hopefully, Canada will uphold its stated values, and defend net neutrality.

What can be done

8 in 10 Americans are in favor of net neutrality. Even though their voice has been ignored by the recent vote, they have the power to pressure their government. Many people have already teamed up online to voice their opposition to this decision. Online petitions exist, as well as websites enabling people to contact Congress directly, to pressure them to stop the FCC with a “Congressional Review Act.” In Canada, non-profits, such as Open Media, fight to preserve net neutrality. They wish to rally the global Internet community behind the American cause and are currently organizing a global petition to support their cause. Canadians can also directly contact their representatives to express their opinions.