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Imperfect proposal

Net neutrality on the line with limited policy process

On August 9 I awoke to headlines like "Google Goes Evil" and "Google Greed And The End Of Net Neutrality." As someone who has worked alongside Google to keep the Internet open (AKA Net Neutrality) in Canada, I was stunned. Did the open Internet community just lose its biggest industry supporter?
The headlines stemmed from a controversial joint policy proposal that Google and Verizon had just submitted to US policy makers. The industry heavyweights hoped the proposal would be adopted as a framework for the future regulation of Internet service. The initiative appears to be an attempt by the two companies to develop a compromise between the telecom industry and online service industry.
For several years now big telecom companies have been fighting to close down the open Internet while online service companies, like Google and Skype, have been working with Internet users and consumer groups to block these attempts.

Despite the headlines the proposal does present some important provisions, such as non-discrimination and non-prioritization of online content and services, that will help ensure an open Internet in the US. However, it also omits the evermore-important mobile access to the Internet through smart phones and other devices from oversight in US. Increasingly consumers will use wireless broadband as their preferred medium for Internet access. It is essential that openness be inserted into the DNA of mobile Internet access.
Also problematic, the proposal goes on to suggest that ISPs should be allowed to offer "differentiated services." Such services "could make use of or access Internet content, applications or services and could include traffic prioritization." Allowing ISPs to offer such services creates an incentive to use their bandwidth to provide access to these services through cable television, which reaches citizens' homes through the same infrastructure as the internet. The result would be bandwidth scarcity for the open public Internet, and disproportionate investment in ISP-controlled private internet services. Allowing such services provides a backdoor for ISPs to use to sneak around open Internet rules.
US Public Interest groups like Free Press are up in arms over the proposal and the FCC has also expressed concerns with it. Net Neutrality policy development in the US now seems more convoluted and precarious than it has been in years. While most of the outrage from consumer groups have targeted Google, the real culprit is the FCC's closed-door approach to rule making.
The proposal comes just days after the FCC announced it was abandoning its own efforts to develop a plan through negotiations with leading phone, cable and Internet companies. The proposal and accompanying public outcry is the result of limiting public input and longstanding policy neglect concerning Internet openness in the US. If the FCC had properly opened its process to the public, it would not have industry players developing public policy on the fly.
Canada's media regulator, the CRTC, took an important step in the right direction last October by putting forward open Internet (traffic management) guidelines. On June 30 the CRTC extended its traffic management rules to mobile wireless data services.
While these are clear signs of positive momentum for ensuring Internet openness in Canada, as it stands right now ISPs have not yet been told to stop throttling access to the open internet. Furthermore, under the current CRTC guidelines, the onus falls on the consumer to file a complaint and to prove that an ISP is unjustly throttling traffic. It is unfair to force consumers to go head to head, over and over again with some of the most powerful businesses in the country.
While Canada is clearly ahead of the US in that we have some Net Neutrality guidelines for both wired and wireless devices—we still don't yet have Net Neutrality in actual practice. It is thus still unclear how or if Net Neutrality will be enforced in Canada.
Eerily familiar to the FCC's industry meetings, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Industry Minister Tony Clement have also reportedly had closed-door meetings with representatives from the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC). ITAC is Canada's most powerful lobby group for the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector. Between January and November 2009, ITAC reported 21 meetings with top federal officials and cabinet ministers involved in developing national digital policies.
If the government continues to develop public policy through closed-door meetings while Canadian individuals and organizations lack clear Internet openness enforcement rules, we're open to the same sort of industry policy development shenanigans that we see playing out in the US.
Online democracy and offline democracy are inextricably linked; neglect for either is neglect for both. The Google/Verizon proposal isn't indecent as much as it's imperfect, much like any public policy developed without a democratic process. V

Steve Anderson is the National Coordinator of openmedia.ca. 

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