406: Not Acceptable

By Christian Louden

Network neutrality has been a big issue in the United States in the past year or so. The debate inevitably arrived in Canada a few months later, becoming a greater threat here than south of the border. Network neutrality is the principle that the Internet should be free of restrictions to access. Universal access to web content, protection of web applications and freedom from censorship fall under the umbrella of Net neutrality. Part of what makes the Internet great is that it allows users to access information from anywhere in the world, from a small blog to a corporate website, free of censorship from the owners of the pipes.

As the Internet stands in Canada, it is without major regulation. This means that Internet service providers are more or less free to shape Internet traffic flow in any way they choose. Recently, Internet service providers have been trying to push this one step further by charging Internet-based companies more money for providing traffic flow to their websites, or charging consumers quality-of-service fees just to maintain the same level of access they already have. Internet service providers have also been known to censor content on the Internet they have deemed to be objectionable.

The rationale behind limiting Net neutrality is quality-of-service fees would allow people and corporate entities that require greater speed and access to the Internet to have premium levels of access to bandwidth, while those with lesser needs would pay the current rate for dwarfed access to bandwidth. This would create a two-tiered system of Internet access that could be very profitable to ISPs.

Companies like Google, Yahoo and eBay are making billions of dollars because of the high levels of traffic through their websites. ISPs provide access to the physical infrastructure that makes these levels of traffic possible, but don’t get a commission from these very profitable businesses. If these companies refused to pay, ISPs would simply cut access to their websites.

ISPs–most notably AT&T in the U.S.–believe they should be self-regulated so they may use their discretion as to what content is appropriate to be accessed by consumers. This would allow them to seamlessly eliminate unsavory content without having to go through the bureaucracy of dealing with the government or those hosting the websites.

Access to and use of the Internet is often likened to freedom of speech. Some people are concerned that the Internet can be used as a tool for recruiting people into terrorist organizations, or spreading messages of hatred, racism, and violence. The argument is made that limiting bandwidth (and free speech) or blocking these undesirable websites is probably a good thing, as it benefits society as a whole.

In the past few years, there have been several instances of Net neutrality being threatened.

Famously, China made deals with Google to vastly censor access to much of what turns up on the search engine’s results within the People’s Republic in 2006. In 2002, China had also been accused of blocking access to Google altogether.

As the law currently stands, telecommunications companies such as Telus, Shaw, Rogers, and Bell (or AT&T in the U.S.), have no legal obligation to not limit or block access to websites, and have been known to “shape” the Internet and its flow of traffic through packet shaping, a practice that delays the flow of undesirable information packets in order to impede or improve performance of other web applications. This has been used in the past to disrupt use of P2P sharing programs such as BitTorrent.

In summer 2005, Telus blocked its customers’ access to a site run by the Telecommunications Workers Union, who were on strike at the time. A side effect of this resulted in an additional 700 or so websites being blocked.

In Mar. 2006, Shaw and Vonage Canada entered a dispute over what Vonage Canada called a “thinly veiled [voice-over-internet protocol] tax” that Shaw had introduced as a $10 “quality-of-service enhancement” fee. The fee was designed to give consumers premium service while using VoIP. The most recent example of net neutrality violations occurred in the U.S. last month, when sponsor/webcaster AT&T censored portions of a Pearl Jam performance during the Lollapolooza concert.

“The editing of the Pearl Jam performance on Sunday night was a serious mistake made by a webcast vendor and completely contrary to our policy,” AT&T’s statement said. “We have policies in place with respect to editing excessive profanity, but AT&T does not edit or censor performances.”

What was contained within the performance then, that was so terrible that it had to be censored? In their own rendition of the Pink Floyd classic, “Another Brick in the Wall,” Pearl Jam inserted the lyrics “George Bush, leave this world alone; George Bush find yourself another home.” At least two other unconfirmed incidents have been reported in which AT&T was thought to be censoring anti-Bush political speech on their Blue Room website which hosts these webcasts.

Thus far, the Canadian government has done little to curb the threat to Net neutrality. When Vonage Canada complained to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission over the VoIP quality-of-service fee Shaw charged its customers, the CRTC ruled in favour of Vonage Canada. The Stephen Harper government shortly overturned the ruling.

As of last month, the Canadian government has a new Industry Minister, Jim Prentice. According to previous documents obtained under the Access to Information Act, former Industry Minister Maxine Bernier recognized telcos such as Telus and Bell are “determined to play a greater role in how Internet content is delivered” and “they [Bell and Telus] believe they should be the gatekeepers of content, with the freedom to impose fees for their role.”

Well aware of the threat, the Telecommunications Policy Review Panel report of Mar. 2006 recommended, according to a document prepared for Bernier dated Nov. 16, 2006, “�in favour of ensuring consumers are able to access publicly available Internet applications and content of their choice by means of all public telecommunications networks providing access to the Internet.”

Despite this, no actions have been taken by the Canadian government to prevent the threat to Net neutrality. Bernier later stated that at this time there is not enough information to make an informed decision on the matter. This raises the question: how much more information is necessary, and what will Jim Prentice’s stance on the maintenance of Internet freedoms be?

So far in Canada, we’ve only encountered minor violations of Net neutrality. This hasn’t yet caused any major problems, but in a world in which telecos such as Telus can block access to websites because they have opposing views, one can certainly imagine a slippery slope in which fees are imposed on users of competitor’s products over the Internet.

If Shaw can charge quality-of-service fees and Telus can block websites without public complaint, one can suppose what may certainly happen down the road. This sets a dangerous precedent that could allow for telecos to block their competitors. Imagine having a Telus Internet connection, but a Rogers or Bell cell phone provider. Without Net neutrality, what’s to stop Telus from blocking access to Bell or Rogers on the Internet?

The Internet is becoming increasingly popular as a medium for paying bills online, managing bank accounts online, and as a market place to purchase and sell goods. With a lack of Net neutrality, the Internet could become much like a cable service provider, in which consumers pay for access to different Internet channels.

Although the issue has failed to attract widespread attention so far, there are a few people fighting for protection of these Internet freedoms.

Professor Michael Geist of the University of Ottawa, a specialist in Internet law, hosts a website dedicated to preventing the loss of Net neutrality, neutrality.ca, as well as a blog frequently updated with news on communications issues. Geist is the most frequently cited expert on the subject in Canada. Neutrality.ca includes a petition Geist intends to send to parliament.

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