Nov. 26, 2008 - Issue #684: I Served the King of England
Internet: Full throttle
Net neutrality advocates say Canada could become an Internet â€˜backwater' in wake of CRTC decision
Net neutrality advocates warn that a highly anticipated decision by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) on the issue of Internet “throttling” has moved Canada one step closer to a two-tier Internet divided into fast and slow lanes.
On November 20 the CRTC, which regulates broadcasting and telecommunications systems in the country, denied a request by the Canadian Association of Independent Providers (CAIP) to prohibit Bell Canada from “throttling,” or slowing down, certain types of Internet traffic over its network.
“It’s a blow against Internet users across Canada,” according to Steve Anderson, the coordinator of SaveOurNet.ca, a national coalition that pushes for a level playing field on the Internet. “It sets the wrong precedent, it sends the wrong message. It’s putting us out of step with the open Internet that is being pushed forward in the US and threatens to make Canada the backwater of the Internet.”
CAIP, which represents over 50 independent Internet service providers which lease space on Bell’s network and re-sell it to their own customers, claimed that Bell’s practice of slowing down transfer rates for peer-to-peer file sharing, voice-over-Internet calls and other high-bandwidth applications to less than the speed of a dial-up connection was discriminatory and put users of such applications at an unfair disadvantage.
In April the group asked the CRTC to prohibit the practice, which CAIP argued threatened Canadians’ access to Internet usage and violated the principle of net neutrality, which says that all Internet traffic should be treated the same and delivered as fast as possible.
While Bell admitted that it was slowing some traffic during the peak hours of 4:30 pm to 2:00 am, it argued the practice was necessary to deal with network congestion resulting from a small number of users sharing large files over peer-to-peer networks, which Bell argued was impacting download speeds for all customers. The telecom giant began shaping the traffic of its own customers in October 2007 and extended
the practice to its wholesale ISPs in March of this year.
After twice delaying its decision, the CRTC sided with Bell, but stressed that its decision only applied to this particular situation.
“Based on the evidence before us, we found that the measures employed by Bell Canada to manage its network were not discriminatory,” said CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein in announcing the decision. “Bell Canada applied the same traffic-shaping practices to wholesale customers as it did to its own retail customers.”
The CRTC also ruled that Bell’s actions did not lessen competition or amount to controlling the content on its network.
But Anderson rejects that notion, saying that customers in some provinces have been left with no choice if they want to use peer-to-peer or other applications now being throttled.
“People, especially in Ontario, don’t have an option to get to the open Internet because Bell and Rogers are throttling their own customers and now Bell is also throttling the competitors that lease their lines,” he says. “Before they might have been throttling their own customers but you could go to Tech Savvy, which is an independent IP, you could go to them and get access to the open Internet. Now there’s no option for that.”
The commission did, however, rule that Bell must provide independent providers using its network with at least 30 days’ notice in advance of any changes to the network.
The decision was hailed by Bell, which was supported in its submission to the CRTC by other Canadian telecom companies, including Rogers and Telus.
“With this decision, the commission has rightly confirmed that network operators are in the best position to determine how to operate their networks effectively and efficiently, to allow fair and proportionate use of the Internet by all users,” said Mirko Bibic, Bell’s senior vice president of regulatory and government affairs, in a release applauding the decision.
But Len Katz, the CRTC’s vice-chair, told the CBC that the ruling said nothing about the right of telecoms generally to manage traffic, saying, “Someone told me Bell put out a press release that said the commission upheld its position that network management practices are a fundamental right of theirs. That’s not what we said at all.”
As part of their decision, the CRTC announced it would hold public hearings next July to address the broader issue of “the extent to which Internet service providers can manage the traffic on their networks in accordance with the Telecommunications Act.”
While he was disappointed that the CRTC ruled in Bell’s favour, Anderson welcomes the announcement of public consultations on the issue.
“The one thing that I am happy about is that there is going to be a public proceeding on traffic management specifically,” he said. “So this isn’t over and the CRTC is actually going to deal with the broader issue, which is something that myself and others have been calling for for a long time. So that is good.”
But he cautions that allowing Bell to continue throttling sets a bad precedent for the hearings.
“What they should have done is tell Bell to cease and desist from throttling until they have that public hearing—don’t allow it to happen then have a pubic hearing,” he argues. “Because what’s going to happen—these are sharp people who are in these companies—they’re going to build a business model around throttling and then use that as ammunition for the hearing. They’re going to say, ‘You can’t tell us to stop throttling. You already let us do it and now we have a business around it.’ So that’s the problem.”
Still, Anderson says that his coalition will spend the coming months encouraging more Canadians to make their voices heard with the CRTC, which received over 2000 letters in support of CAIP during its deliberations.
“The thing about this issue is that when people understand it, when there’s a public debate of any sort, any public discussion about this, we win because virtually nobody is in favour of Internet throttling. It literally is a handful of big telecom companies against the rest of society,” he says. “So if we raise the alarms about this and let people know about it on a wide enough scale, they won’t stand for the CRTC to allow this to go through.”
Anderson says that a key message they’ll be getting out is that losing the concept of net neutrality will likely mean the end of the Internet as we know it today.
“Slowly over time we’ll have a two-tier Internet where there’s a slow lane—it’s unreliable, it’s slow, it’s up and down. You’ll be free to use that, it’s like now: you want to check a website? No problem. Then you’ll have a fast lane that’s super fast, it’ll be great for high-definition video, and basically if you want to compete that’s what you have to be on because no one’s going to use the shitty slow-lane Internet.
“So it’ll be more like TV, you’ll have more proscribed menu choices because in order to be in that fast lane you’ll probably have to have a lot of money. That’s probably where Bell and other IPs are hoping it’ll go, because when they can get control of the medium it’s much more profitable. Think of how much they could be charging CanWest Global and all these broadcasters and all these content producers to get on the fast lane. It’s a huge amount of money they could be making if they get control. That’s what I think we’re in store for if we allow this to happen.“ V
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