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    Who Needs Lawful Access?: Cdn Telcos Hand Over Data on Thousands of Subscribers Without a Warrant

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    Wednesday March 26, 2014
    The debate over Bill C-13, the government's latest lawful access bill, is set to resume shortly.  The government has argued that the bill should not raise concerns since new police powers involve court oversight and the mandatory warrantless disclosure provisions that raised widespread concern in the last bill have been removed.  While that is the government's talking points, I've posted on how this bill now includes incentives for telecom companies and other intermediaries to disclose subscriber information without court oversight since it grants them full civil and criminal immunity for doing so. Moreover, newly released data suggests that the telecom companies don't seem to need much of an incentive as they are already disclosing subscriber data on thousands of Canadians every year without court oversight.

    This week, the government responded to NDP MP Charmaine Borg's request for information on government agencies requests to telecom providers for customer information. The data reveals that the telecom companies have established law enforcement databases that provides ready access to subscriber information. For example, the Competition Bureau reports that it "accessed the Bell Canada Law Enforcement Database" 20 times in 2012-13.  The wording may be important, since the Bureau indicates that it accessed the information, rather than Bell provided it. It is not clear what oversight or review is used before a government agency may access the Bell database.

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    ISPs Push For Two-Tier Internet Based on Data Caps

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    Wednesday January 15, 2014
    Appeared in the Toronto Star on January 11, 2014 as Internet Providers Push for Two-Tier Internet Based on Data Caps

    Net neutrality has been one of the defining Internet policy issues of the past decade. Starting with early concerns that large telecom and Internet providers would seek to generate increased profits by creating a two-tier Internet with a fast lane (for companies that paid additional fees to deliver their online content quicker) and a slow lane (for everyone else), the issue captured the attention of governments and telecom regulators.

    While the net neutrality challenges evolved over time, the core question invariably boiled down to whether Internet providers would attempt to leverage their gatekeeper position to create an unfair advantage by treating similar content, applications or other services in different ways.

    In response, net neutrality rules surfaced that were designed to safeguard online competition. Countries such as Chile and the Netherlands included net neutrality requirements within their telecom laws, while others developed regulatory guidelines and principles. In Canada, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission established the Internet traffic management practices in 2009, which serve as the Canadian net neutrality rules.

    Concerns over net neutrality may have receded once policies were established, yet Internet providers continued to search for business models that could generate incremental revenues from their networks. Having failed to establish a two-tier Internet based on speed, they now appear to be focused on an alternative two-tier approach based on data usage.

    The premise of a two-tier Internet based on data usage stems from the proliferation of data caps among many providers, particularly for fast-growing wireless Internet services.  The days of "unlimited Internet" are over at many providers, replaced by packages that include a fixed amount of data usage each month with expensive overage charges for those that exceed their monthly allocation.

    Sensing consumer frustration with data caps, network providers have begun to offer access to some services or content that does not count against the monthly cap. The result is a new two-tier Internet: one Internet that counts against the monthly data cap and another that does not.

    For example, last week AT&T, one of the largest U.S. Internet wireless providers, unveiled plans to offer "Sponsored Data", which will allow websites and content owners to essentially pay for users to access their content. Subscribers will access sponsored data in the same manner as other content through AT&T's wireless Internet service, but it will not count against the user's monthly cap.

    AT&T argues that the plan does not run afoul of U.S. net neutrality rules since all content is delivered at the same speed. Yet the change creates a two-tier Internet with obvious advantages for deep-pocketed content providers who can promote their services as "data-free", while potentially superior start-up services become perceived as costlier alternatives.

    Canadian providers have also begun to examine how data caps can be used to differentiate between content. For example, Bell offers a $5 per month mobile TV service that allows users to watch dozens of Bell-owned or licensed television channels for ten hours without affecting their data cap. By comparison, users accessing the same online video through a third-party service such as Netflix would be on the hook for a far more expensive data plan since all of the data usage would count against their monthly cap.

    The Bell plan is currently the subject of a complaint before the CRTC, which maintains that Bell's practices violate the Commission's net neutrality rules by treating similar content in an unequal manner. The complaint will be addressed in the coming months, but regardless of the outcome, it is increasingly clear that there is a new front in the net neutrality fight with Internet providers intent on leveraging data usage to create a two-tier Internet.

    Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.

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    Senate Heading Toward Investigation Into Bell's Privacy Practices

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    Friday December 06, 2013
    Conservative Senator Leo Housakos this week raised the possibility of a hearing into Bell's privacy practices in light of recent disclosures involving collection and use of data for targeted advertising purposes. Housakos gave notice of a motion for a hearing by the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications involving Bell and the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

    Housakos raised concerns about Bell's practices in the Senate last month, noting:

    Therefore, the fundamental question is: What should we permit as a society? Where do we draw the line between what is private information and what can reasonably be shared with the general public as well as advertisers? We, as a society, must address these questions before media companies render it a moot point.
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    Bell Faces CRTC Net Neutrality Complaint

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    Monday November 25, 2013
    Bell Mobility is facing a net neutrality complaint arising from its treatment of online video. Filed by Ben Klass, the complaint (a Part 1 application requesting fair treatment of Internet services by Bell Mobility) compares the cost of watching 5 GB of content on Netflix with the cost of 5 GB of Bell's own content. The result: $40 for the Netflix content vs. $5 for the Bell content. Moreover, it notes how the different services are measured differently with Bell charging on an hourly basis for its content but on a data basis for competing online video services.
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