Canadian telecom providers have already been under attack for bandwidth caps. Image: Jesse Hirsh/Flickr
The US Federal Communications Commission's proposed internet regulations would, as portrayed, effectively end net neutrality as we know it. And not just for Americans, either; because of how tightly connected the US is connected with its neighbour to the north, there's reason to be concerned if you're Canadian as well.
Yesterday, sources told the New York Times that the FCC wants to allow internet service providers to jack rates for higher speed delivery of certain content like online video, which will likely create a tiered system: those who can pay to deliver their content in the fast lane, and those who can't. In an email, Canadian digital policy expert Professor Michael Geist didn’t mince words: “If the reports are true—the FCC is [vaguely] denying it tonight—it guts net neutrality in the United States.”
Up here in Canada, in a country so economically and socially integrated with our southern neighbors, internet has become as intertwined as our highways and waterways. Much of our everyday internet traffic already passes through US servers, peering, and content delivery networks. If the FCC lets big players like ISPs offer a fast lane to effectively squeeze more money out of content providers like Netflix, it’s likely that lots of Canadian web traffic could risk getting caught in the slow lane.
As Geist explained to me, there isn’t “a practical difference between deliberately slowing some traffic and deliberately speeding up other traffic." To him, the end result is unavoidable: "A two-tier Internet based on payments from content owners that can afford it. That strikes at the heart of net neutrality.”
In that scenario, Canadian content owners and web businesses will end up having to pay American ISPs just to have their products compete on an even footing. Of course, this punishes small and startup businesses, who might not be able to afford this carriage fee to access the US market at a reasonable speed. Canadian consumers with or without cable TV connections, for their part, may just have to get very familiar with the animated loading icons of their favourite video sites.
Even if we keep our fingers crossed and none of the above happens, there’s still a threat here. Veteran tech journalist Peter Nowak is concerned with the precedent the FCC rules may have for Canadian net neutrality. “Sure, we have net neutrality rules here in Canada but if you don't think our big ISPs are going to be emboldened now to circumvent them or try to re-open the conversation, well then you don't know them very well," he said.
He’s got a point. Canada’s major ISPs aren’t exactly known for their low prices or competitive zeal. They’re also huge content broadcasters and license-owners, which gives them the biggest reason in the world to try to take a run at net neutrality: profit. By stifling competition from the big wide fun internet, they get to keep their walled gardens intact and shareholders happy. Bandwidth caps are a prime example of this, as many experts have argued that the ISPs' claims about congestion don’t add up—the caps are simply a way to take their cut of a service like Netflix.
Nowak’s assertion is also underscored by a recent complaint lodged with Canada’s telecom regulator, the CRTC. The multi-headed internet/cable/phone/TV/media/newspaper god, Bell, has already been accused of unfair shenanigans on its wireless internet plans, allegedly charging up to 800 percent more money for competing non-Bell content. If the FCC rules go through as reported, it’s a safe bet that Canadian telecoms will be asking for "regulatory harmonization" and other innocuous-sounding econospeak that gets used when trying to soften protections of the public interest.
The Canadian government’s recent digital strategy made no mention of protecting net neutrality, so we might not expect it to have our back on this anytime soon. Where does hope remain? Barack Obama did make a campaign promise to protect net neutrality, so there’s a chance he could tell his ex-cable lobbyist FCC chairman to back off for fear of an internet revolt.
Another potential upside is that community networks and ISPs could get a boost. Instead of getting our internet from a private player, it’s conceivable that enough of us could hop onto municipal networks offering equal access. This could shift the balance back in favour of neutrality, but it’s admittedly a long shot. For now, it seems like Canadian internet users may have to gear up for a complicated fight on both sides of the border.