An indecent proposal


On August 9, I woke up 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 policymakers. The industry heavyweights hoped the proposal would be adopted as a framework for the future regulation of internet service.

Despite the headlines, the proposal does present some important provisions, such as non-discrimination and non-prioritization of online content and services, which will help ensure an open internet in the US. However, it also omits the ever-important mobile access to the internet, through smart phones and other devices, from oversight in the US. Increasingly, consumers will use wireless broadband as their preferred medium for 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.

Closed government the real villain

US public interest groups like Free Press are up in arms over the proposal and the FCC has also expressed concerns with it. While most of the outrage from consumer groups has targeted Google, the real culprit is the FCC’s closed-door approach to rule making.

The proposal comes just days after the Federal Communications Commission (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 are the result of limiting public input and longstanding policy neglect concerning internet openness in the US.

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.

Although 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 prove that an ISP is unjustly throttling traffic.

While Canada is clearly ahead of the US in that we have some net neutrality guidelines for both wired and wireless devices, we still do not have net neutrality in actual practice. It is thus still unclear how or if Net Neutrality will be enforced in Canada.

Eerily similar 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.

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 of either is neglect of both. The Google/Verizon proposal isn’t indecent as much as it’s imperfect, much like any public policy developed without a democratic process.

I encourage Canadians to stand up for online democracy by sending a message to Tony Clement at:

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

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