Network Neutrality: The First Word is In
Last Thursday, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruled that Bell Canada was not engaging in a discriminatory activity by shaping the traffic of its wholesale clients. The CRTC found that because heavy-usage residential customers were also having bandwidth throttled, commercial customers could not be said to have been discriminated against. The Commission found that there was, as Bell claimed, network congestion due to P2P traffic, and that traffic shaping was appropriate in this case.
The Canadian Association of Internet Providers(CAIP), a group of businesses that purchase bandwidth for their reselling enterprises, stipulated in their suit that Bell discriminated against them, primarily because their services successfully compete with those of their provider’s. The CAIP, who launched their suit last April,stipulate in their CRTC application, that they were only using a service that they had already paid for, and that therefore, Bell was not honouring their contracts.Bell argued that increased use of torrent clients was choking bandwidth so much that they had to shape traffic to be able to keep the lines open. This is debatable, as the telcos could easily alleviate the congestion by adding more bandwidth to deliver the service that their clients have already paid for.
The CRTC’s conclusion, that one group is not being singled out because the same treatment has been applied to another, is specious logic at best, and it dodges a larger issue; when governments take a laissez-faire approach to something as essential as network neutrality with medium as ubiquitous as the Internet, the result is that the arbitration of national communications policies will effectively default to large cable companies rather than legislators. Presently, there is no law preserving network neutrality in North America. Though it was not addressed in this first round, the CRTC did recognize that the issue needs to be revisited, and so there will be dedicated hearings in 2009. This is in itself welcome news, as network neutrality was a low-profile issue in Canada until recently, despite its importance.
Though Canadian telecommunications companies have impeded web traffic beforeThursday’s decision is the first blow to network neutrality that has the blessing of an official regulatory body. The Conservative government has been hesitant to comment on network neutrality, and appear to be opposed to federal regulation of the Internet. What is troubling, is that the public is left without a concrete measure constituting what an ISP can say is too much usage. For the time being, the practice of network throttling has been legally sanctioned.
At this point, Canada appears to be going in the opposite direction than the US; President-elect Barack Obama, is an advocate of legislating network neutrality, which has been called the “First Amendment of the Internet.” It is easy to see why Obama backs network neutrality. His incredibly successful grassroots campaigns effectively utilized the innovative potential of the free net for awareness and fundraising. He recognized that the nature of the new media lends itself to a more direct and instant participation in democracy, an insight that mobilized voters in record numbers.
Network neutrality facilitates innovation and democratic representation in the media, and fosters healthy competition among Internet companies. These are important elements for Canada to retain if it would remain a leader in the communcations world.