Lost opportunity for openness



Last month, the government had a perfect opportunity to address Canada’s deficit in Internet openness or “Net Neutrality.” In both the Speech From the Throne and the budget, it should have seized the opportunity to present an openness agenda. If the Conservatives are committed to lifting foreign ownership rules for the telecommunication industry, as mentioned in their speech, why aren’t they first ensuring that Canadians enjoy open access to all the Internet has to offer from our current providers? Seems like they’re putting the cart before the horse or, rather, the carriers before the users.

In what many consider a major victory for the open media movement, last fall the CRTC developed new “traffic management” guidelines. However, under these new guidelines, the CRTC will not enforce its own framework; instead, the onus falls on the consumer to file a complaint and prove that an ISP is unjustly throttling (degrading) the Internet. It is unfair to force consumers to somehow obtain the technical and policy expertise to present their case effectively before the CRTC, and to also outmanoeuvre some of the most powerful businesses in the country.

Unlike the US and other countries, several ISPs in Canada continue to limit access to content and services in this country. As Telecom law expert Michael Geist points out, it’s currently “a decidedly mixed bag” in terms of how ISPs are reacting to the CRTC’s new guidelines. Four of the dominant six providers continue to throttle Internet use and two of them do not make it easy to find their traffic management disclosures despite the CRTC’s transparency rule. The transparency guideline calls for ISPs to make known how their traffic management practices “will affect a user’s Internet experience, including the specific impact on speeds.”

While Bell and Rogers do reveal their practices, albeit coupled with a positive spin, Shaw and Cogeco do not reveal the speeds users can expect when they are throttled. This is important because when users experience artificial slowness, they often assume it is a problem with a particular website. If users have knowledge of the speeds associated with throttling, they will be better equipped to know when they have fallen victim to it.

It also appears that Rogers and Cogeco fail to limit their throttling activities to instances of actual congestion, opting instead for constant throttling of certain applications and the content that runs through them. Clearly, the guidelines alone are not enough to ensure that Canadians have open access.

The do nothing approach

Unfortunately, the government appears to have once again adopted a do nothing approach. The Throne Speech made no attempt to address Canada’s Internet openness deficit, despite overwhelming support for Net Neutrality from the other major parties, along with a clear majority of Canadians. When asked about Net Neutrality in the House of Commons last year, Industry Minister Tony Clement said he is “watching those providers very closely” and does not “want to see a situation where consumers are put at risk in terms of their access to the Internet.” Clement should be aware that several dominant ISPs are presently limiting access to bittorent applications and the content that runs through them. This limits consumer choice and stifles innovation and social change.

Case in point: innovative environmental groups like the Wilderness Committee and Dogwood Initiative are reaching more and more people through the Internet. It is essential for these groups to be able to access people on the Internet, unhindered by big telecom companies. For the sake of our ecological future, we cannot let the Internet head down the slippery slope of centralized control. Clement can stop Internet Service Providers from controlling our use of the Internet by asking the CRTC to conduct regular compliance audits of ISP traffic management practices.

The users, not the ISPs, should decide which applications and services Canadians use on the Internet. Canadians can send a letter to Tony Clement at http://saveournet.ca/action

Steve Anderson is the national coordinator for the Campaign for Democratic Media. He has written for The Tyee, Toronto Star, Epoch Times and Adbusters.