My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) discusses the recent revelations that Industry Canada is highly skeptical about the need for net neutrality legislation. I argue that the need to prevent a two-tier Internet in Canada has never been greater. The Canadian competitive landscape is dominated by a handful of companies, with the top five providers controlling 84 percent of Canadian Internet connections. Indeed, Canadian consumers who have access to broadband networks (many communities are still without access) invariably face steady price increases and service limitations from the indistinguishable choice between cable and DSL.
Leveraging their dominant positions, Canadian telecommunications companies have been embroiled in a growing number of incidents involving content or application discrimination. Over the past two years, Telus blocked access to hundreds of websites during a dispute with its labour union, Shaw attempted to levy surcharges for Internet telephony services, Rogers quietly limited bandwidth for legitimate peer-to-peer software applications, and Videotron mused publicly about establishing a new Internet transmission tariff that would require content creators to pay millions for the privilege of transmitting their content.
The government documents uncovered last week confirm that Industry Minister Maxime Bernier is aware of the situation. One prepared for the House of Commons Question Period notes that "Canadian telecommunications companies, like Bell and Telus, are increasingly determined to play a greater role in how Internet content is delivered. As the carriers of the content, they believe they should be gatekeepers of the content, with the freedom to impose fees for their role."
Despite publicly maintaining that he is undecided on the issue, another document leaves little doubt that net neutrality legislation is not in the cards for Canada. A Question and Answer memorandum dated November 16, 2006, highlights Bernier's potential position on net neutrality. Echoing the position of the major telecommunications companies, the proposed response concludes that "market forces have served Canadians well when it comes to the Internet. Public policy must consider a number of aspects of this broad issue, including consumer protection and choice [and] enabling market forces to continue to shape the evolution of the Internet infrastructure, investment and innovation to the greatest extent feasible."
I conclude by noting that after reports of the internal government position on net neutrality leaked out, Bloc MP Paul Crête raised the issue last Wednesday in the House of Commons, asking Bernier to commit to the principle of net neutrality. Bernier declined to do so, instead citing a recent Ipsos-Reid public opinion poll that he said demonstrated that 75 percent of Quebec residents support his plans for telecom reform. In addition to mistaking polls for policies, Bernier did not mention that only 14 percent of respondents were even aware of the government's telecom policy changes and that the survey made no mention of Internet access issues. More tellingly, he also neglected to reveal that it was Bell Canada that commissioned the survey.