Hijacking the information highway


Perhaps more than anything else, the open Internet allows us to envision and 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: the 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 – known as net neutrality or common carriage – which require 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 online 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 more than 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 in 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 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 (“throttling”). 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 (The Tyee) in the most concentrated media market in North America, they didn’t have to ask for ISP permission. Likewise, when the new Toronto-based, global, independent news organization, theREALnews, wanted to experiment with real-time online debate formats, it did not need to pay expensive distribution costs; it just began streaming its content. Similarly, when Rabble.ca wanted to create its own online national TV station, it didn’t need to pay exorbitant fees for a TV station; it just innovated by using the online tools available. These projects would not exist if the Internet were not an open medium. What’s worse, the next TyeetheREALnews or 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.

Let’s be clear; this is not a battle between big ISPs and CAIP. This is not a battle between big ISPs and Google. This is 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.

The question is who will control Canada’s digital soul? More about this issue at www.saveournet.ca

Steve Anderson is the national coordinator for the Campaign for Democratic Media. He contributed to Censored 2008 and Battleground: The Media, and has written for The TyeeToronto Star, Epoch Times and Adbusters. Reach him at: 

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