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A year to innovate

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2011 is the year to secure an open Internet

In my January 2009 column I asserted that 2010 would be a pivotal year for communities working to open communication in Canada and beyond. And so here we are at the end of the year, and it appears that indeed there is a growing community focused on openness with the open Internet at its core.

For example, over 22 000 people and counting have signed the Stop The Meter petition, demonstrating widespread discontent with big telecom companies who are attempting to hogtie competing indie Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and make the Internet much more expensive to use.

While the open media community will likely continue to gain momentum, I believe that in 2011, innovation will take on an increasingly central role in defining the future of communications, and society in general.

Here's the situation as I see it. Big Internet service providers (Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Telus, Videotron) plan to make Internet access more expensive by imposing usage-based billing (charging per byte). According to StopUBB.ca, this could cost Internet users $60 more per month starting this year.
Many of these same providers continue to slow access to innovative online content and services. Most recently, Rogers' customers reported problems accessing content after the company experimented with its traffic-slowing technology.

Major Internet service providers are investing in and experimenting with a new more controlled version of the Internet, delivered through TV and mobile devices.

What this amounts to is a campaign to make the Internet more expensive and circumscribed while providers experiment with their "managed" TV/mobile Internet services. This is pure discrimination against the open Internet. The market is being structured so that either way, the big telecom companies win. They either successfully corral us into their TV version of the Internet, make the Internet more expensive and restricted, or both.

What does this have to do with innovation? The main challenge with initiatives designed to preserve and build on the open Internet is that people take the Internet for granted. This is where online innovators play an essential role.

Big telecom companies will make deals with Facebook and other big players so that you'll find them on your Internet TV. However, you might have trouble finding the small independent online services like those that carry this column or the new crowd-sourced journalism project OpenFile, CBC Radio 3 and innovative services like Hootsuite. These projects and numerous others rely on the open platform that is the Internet to affordably experiment and reach audiences on a level playing field with other larger, more established players.

Canadians need to understand the value of online innovation. Innovators in Canada need to be, well, more innovative. They need to reach more people and more effectively demonstrate the importance of the open accessible Internet. They need to be de facto champions of openness—just as many of their predecessors have been.

Canadians will step up to defend the open Internet more wholeheartedly when its value is more clearly demonstrated. Online innovators and the community that support them need to capture more audience from big media. Not only will this chip away at the profits and control wielded by big telecom companies, it will also make it much harder for these companies to discriminate against the open Internet.

If Canadians en masse are more deeply engaged by, and fall in love with, innovative online services and content, they will be better equipped to defend the open Internet when needed. More importantly, Canadians will actually notice that Internet services provided on TV don't include their favourite online services.

Innovation isn't just an awesome thing to do; it has, and will increasingly continue to play an essential role in ensuring that the revolution unfolding in communication continues. Let's show what we can do with this collaborative tool we call the Internet. V

Steve Anderson is the national coordinator of OpenMedia.ca

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