Net neutrality, the longstanding principle that Internet service providers should treat all content and applications in an equal manner faces its toughest test yet this week as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada’s broadcast and telecommunications regulator, conducts a hearing on whether ISPs may engage in “differential pricing”.
My Globe and Mail column notes that differential pricing refers to instances in which ISPs adopt a non-neutral approach to content by charging one price for consumers to download or access some content, but a different price for other content. The issue – sometimes known as “zero rating” for cases in which ISPs do not levy any data charges for certain content – may sound technical, but it has huge implications for how Canadians access and pay for Internet services.
Much like prior policy battles over net neutrality, the concern over differential pricing involves fears that ISPs will use their gatekeeper position to favour some content over the others. In fact, given the vertical integration that brings together carriage and content at many of Canada’s largest providers, the temptation to privilege their own content may be too much to resist.
How can the CRTC craft a policy that maintains the principles of net neutrality but avoids heavy-handed regulation? In searching for a policy that encourages ISP innovation that does not rely on leveraging the potential gatekeeper function, the commission should consider a default rule prohibiting differential pricing subject to two exceptions. Read the full column that examines the solutions that are non-starters and the details on a differential pricing policy.