2009: who will control Canada’s digital soul?

by Steve Anderson, Vue

What the open Internet does perhaps more than anything else is allow us to envision, and in fact, actually produce a more democratic media system. But the open Internet is under threat by the very companies that bring it into our homes and workplaces, Internet Service Providers (ISPs). These big telecommunication companies want to become the gatekeepers of the Internet, charging hefty fees to reach large audiences as they do with other mediums.

Big telecom companies are trying to do away with the governing guidelines of the Internet called Net Neutrality (or common carriage). Net neutrality requires that Internet service providers not discriminate—including speeding up or slowing down Web content—based on its source, ownership or destination. Net neutrality protects our ability to direct our own on-line activities, and also maintains a level playing field for online innovation and social change.

The activity of limiting or slowing access to specific content and services is referred to as “traffic shaping” or “throttling,” and it fundamentally changes how the Internet works. According to Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, ISPs already have a “history of blocking access to contentious content (Telus), limiting bandwidth for alternative content delivery channels (Rogers) and raising the prospect of levying fees for priority content delivery (Bell).”

The importance of net neutrality was made clear when Bell Canada's traffic "throttling" began limiting users' ability to view the CBC's hit show Canada's Next Great Prime Minister. Some users claimed it took over a day to download the show. In addition to manipulating its own customers use of the Internet, Bell also “shapes” traffic passing through its network from independent ISPs like Teksavvy Solutions, thereby also limiting one of its few competitors from offering open access to the Internet.

The Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP), stood up for independent ISPs by sending a formal request to the CRTC urging them to order Bell to cease and desist from throttling its competitors Internet service. Unfortunately, on November 20 the CRTC ruled that Bell could continue to throttle independent ISPs who interconnect with its network. The CRTC’s ruling in the CAIP proceeding acts to limit competing ISPs from offering differential services, like providing access to the open Internet.

The battle continues, the CRTC recently announced a new public hearing on the wider issue of traffic shaping. Many of the anti-consumer aspects of the Bell/CAIP decision could be reversed if the traffic shaping hearing comes down in the public’s favour.

When social entrepreneurs and public interest organizations in Vancouver aimed to create an innovative online news organization (TheTyee) in the most concentrated media market in North America, they didn’t have to ask for ISP permission. Likewise, when the new global Independent news organization, Toronto-based TheREALnews, wanted to experiment with real time online debate formats, they did not need to pay expensive distribution costs, they just began streaming their content. When Rabble.ca wanted to create its own online national TV station they didn’t need pay exorbitant fees for a TV station, they just innovated using the online tools available.

These projects would not exist if the Internet was not an open medium. What’s worse, the next Tyee, TheREALnews, Rabble.ca won’t exist if we don’t have an open neutral network. When we lose the open Internet we lose the freedom to innovate.

Lets be clear, this is not a battle between big ISPs and CAIP, this is not a battle between big ISPs and google, this not just a battle between big ISPs and their own customers, this is a battle between a handful of big telecom companies on one side and online innovation, free speech, small business, independent media, artists, and civil society on the other—it’s a handful of big telecom companies against the rest of Canada.
After the dust has settled either big telecom will regulate the Internet or Internet users will determine their own online activities. The question is who will control Canada’s digital soul?

Learn more about this issue at saveournet.ca.

article originally published at http://www.vueweekly.com/article.php?id=10713.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey