A day after the government confirmed its telephone deregulation plan over the objection of a Parliamentary committee and moved forward on plans to create a new, independent telecommunications consumer agency, it is worth pointing to a necessary complaint once that agency is operational (and to the CRTC in the meantime). For the past 18 months, it has been open secret that Rogers engages in packet shaping, conduct that limits the amount of available bandwidth for certain services such as peer-to-peer file sharing applications. Rogers denied the practice at first, but effectively acknowledged it in late 2005. Net neutrality advocates regularly point to traffic shaping as a concern since they fear that Rogers could limit bandwidth to competing content or services. In response to the packet shaping approach, many file sharing applications now employ encryption to make it difficult to detect the contents of data packets. This has led to a technical "cat and mouse" game, with Rogers now one of the only ISPs in the world to simply degrade encrypted traffic.
This raises many issues but I would like to focus on just two in this posting. First, not only is BitTorrent legal in Canada, but a growing percentage of the file swapping on BitTorrent clients is authorized. This includes a substantial amount of open source software development, independent films, and other large files. By reducing the bandwidth available for this application, Rogers is impairing the ability for Canadian artists to distribute their work and hampering the development of open source software in Canada. Moreover, this could lead to a situation where Rogers' own content is unfairly advantaged over competing content.
If that was not bad enough, there is now speculation at my own university that the packet shaping is making it very difficult for University of Ottawa users to use email applications from home. The University of Ottawa uses a persistent SSL encryption technology for the thousands of professors and students who access their email from off-campus. There is speculation that Rogers is mistakenly treating the email traffic as BitTorrent traffic, thereby creating noticeable slowdowns. Indeed, I have been advised that the University computer help desk has received a steady stream of complaints from Rogers customers about off-campus email service.
If true, this form of network interference – implemented with virtually no transparency and now affecting basic Internet services such as email – demonstrates why a dedicated consumer complaints commission is a good start, but a place to complain is not enough. The solution lies in creating mandatory net neutrality provisions to ensure that essential communications tools such as email are not surreptitiously degraded.