The Telus website blockage story may have come to a close last week with the removal of the block, but its ramifications are likely to felt for a long time to come. The NY Times covers the story today and my weekly column (freely available hyperlinked version, Toronto Star version) also assesses the longer term implications.
I argue that Telus violated the basic ISP rule that providers transport bits of data without discrimination, preference, or regard for content. The company argued that its subscriber contract granted it the right to block content, in this case the website supportive of its main union. Telus claimed that the site contained content that placed its employees at risk. While it may have been able to rely on contract to block access for its roughly one million retail subscribers, the blockage occurred at the Internet backbone level, thereby blocking access for other ISPs (and their customers) that use Telus as their provider. For example, Prince Rupert, a small city on the northwest coast of British Columbia, has established a community ISP to provide its citizens with municipally supported Internet access. Since their connectivity is provided by Telus, last week the entire community found itself unable to access the website in question.
Further, while the legal issues associated with the incident are somewhat murky (see related posting), the website blockage was stunningly bad policy that may ultimately come back to haunt the entire Canadian ISP industry. Earlier this year the federal government launched its Telecommunications Policy Review, a comprehensive review of all aspects of the Canadian telecommunications regulatory framework, including the provision and availability of Internet services.
The Telus blockage, combined with ever growing concerns about ISPs that engage in packet preferencing or discrimination against competitive Internet telephony services, as well as doubts about the effectiveness of ISP action against spam, and fears about ISP protection of customer private data in light of potential new law enforcement surveillance requirements, may lead to increasing calls for a new national ISP accountability framework.
I conclude by noting that Canadian ISPs have been supported for many years by a self-regulatory environment premised on network neutrality and non-discrimination of the traffic on their systems. In light of last week's events, they may soon find the federal government stepping in to back this principle with the force of law.