Canadians Deserve Better ISP Transparency

My weekly law and technology column (Toronto Star version, Ottawa Citizen version, homepage version) picks up on last week's Leger Marketing survey that found that Canadians are generally unaware of net neutrality issues, yet, when informed of the concern, strongly support the principles that provide the foundation for net neutrality legislation.

Most Canadians can hardly be faulted for being unaware of net neutrality since ISPs have done their best to keep the issue off the public's radar screen.  While solving the net neutrality issue will not happen overnight, addressing the lack of transparency associated with Internet services would go a long way toward creating a more informed debate.
For example, Rogers, one of Canada"s largest ISPs, has faced regular criticism over its failure to come clean on "traffic shaping" practices on its network. Traffic shaping limits the amount of bandwidth available for certain applications such as peer-to-peer file sharing.  The company markets its high-end Extreme package as "its fastest residential service for sharing large files, " however, the reality is that consumers are promised service offering specific speeds and a maximum cap on data transfers, yet are secretly unable to make full use of the service for which they have paid. Rogers maintains that it needs to manage its network with traffic shaping technologies in order to provide a better quality of service for all its customers.   It continues to shroud its practices in secrecy, however, as its website does not include a single mention of traffic shaping or limits on peer-to-peer applications and company spokespeople have provided inconsistent explanations for what is happening behind the scenes.

Last week, a company executive told an industry meeting that Rogers traffic shapes by limiting the percentage of bandwidth available for peer-to-peer file sharing.  From a consumer perspective, that means that upgrading to faster products will only yield limited benefits, since the faster bandwidth is partially offset by traffic shaping. Rogers insists that the traffic shaping is essential, yet it is disappointing that the company seemingly refuses to level with its customers.  In contrast, some of Rogers' competitors have opened up on the traffic shaping issue – Bell recently advised customers that it may engage in network management to address excessive bandwidth use.

While Bell's acknowledgment is a welcome development, it still faces criticism for the uncertainty associated with other services.  Last month, Bell unveiled a new "unlimited" data plan for laptop computers using a PC card slot.  Consumers who took the time to read their contract quickly realized that the offer was not quite what it seemed as the fine print prohibited "multi-media streaming, voice over Internet protocol or any other application which uses excessive network capacity."  The contract went further, prohibiting any use that "consumes excessive network capacity in Bell's reasonable opinion, or causes our network, or our ability to provide services to others, to be adversely affected."  In other words, while the company markets its service as unlimited, the reality is that consumers face significant, largely unknown restrictions.

While Canadian leaders such as Industry Minister Jim Prentice, Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Chair Konrad von Finckenstein, and Competition Commissioner Sheridan Scott have done little to address the lack of transparency issue, their counterparts in other countries have been far more proactive.  For example, earlier this year the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission released guidelines for ISPs when advertising their broadband services to "prevent consumers being misled as to the speeds achievable on various technologies."  The ACCC backed the guidelines with the threat of million dollar fines for those ISPs that fail to comply.

Net neutrality proponents and critics unquestionably remain far apart on many issues.  Indeed, a senior Bell executive recently acknowledged that the company would like to retain the right to establish a two-tier Internet where they can levy fees on both consumers and websites for the traffic that runs on their networks.  That proposition that strikes fear into the hearts of net neutrality advocates, such as emerging e-commerce companies and creators, who can ill-afford such additional costs. While bridging that divide will clearly require much discussion, tackling the lack of transparency provides a good starting point for addressing the new neutrality concerns that the Leger Marketing survey suggests are shared by the majority of Canadians. 


  1. This practice is nothing new sadly, up until recently I worked in the United Kingdom for an ISP which regularly used traffic-shaping on it’s network. The terms and conditions in the customers contract stated that the Company reserved the right to ‘manage traffic across our network.’

    If the customers went over a certain bandwidth allocation each week (the level of which they were not informed) their connection was throttled down to an almost unusable level – they were advised this throttling would only occur during peak hours but in almost all cases it affected speeds 24 hours a day, without any recourse for the customer.

    It was appalling and all of the technical staff complained to the management however nothing was ever done.

    I’m disappointed to see such practices carried out over here in Canada.

  2. I know they want to make a killing and that adding things I don’t need and things I don’t want to my Internet connection is a good thing for ISPs…but as a consumer I care about what’s good for me; Net neutrality and stable, usable, access to the Internet is good for me.

  3. [ link ] ISP’s wet dream. Does anyone sane wants this? No I will rather go without Internet or start community Internet service locally.

  4. Mr, Geist pays for his website hosting. I pay Bell for internet access. Everyone that needs to get paid, got paid. Any further charges are not “managing the network” or other such doublespeak but rather it is purely and simply 1) overselling their bandwidth and 2) greed – and in this case, the former is a symptom of the latter. Rogers? Greedy. Bell? Greedy. Pure and simple.

  5. Right!
    fedge, that is the most simple, yet elegant way I’ve ever heard network neutrality summarized: “Everyone that needs to get paid, got paid”.

    Simple and true, well put.