For most of the past two years, the net neutrality issue in Canada, which focuses on equal treatment of Internet traffic, has been limited to a handful of academics and consumer groups pointing to the dangers to the public of a two-tier Internet. That dynamic changed dramatically earlier this year when Bell Canada instituted "deep packet inspection" of its traffic and limited the bandwidth it allocates to certain applications during peak times (a practice known as "throttling").
The fallout from the Bell action – including a formal complaint to the CRTC by the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, a protest rally on Parliament Hill in late May, and a private members bill introduced by NDP MP Charlie Angus – has elevated the net neutrality issue in the public policy hierarchy. Indeed, CRTC Chair Konrad von Finckenstein told an industry group last month that net neutrality "is one of the polarizing issues of the day. It will have to be addressed and debated by all of us."
In recent days that debate has advanced even further as the business community has begun to take sides.
Google led the charge with a submission to the CRTC in which it left little doubt about how it views the net neutrality issue. The Internet search giant argued that "providers of broadband internet access services, including Bell, should be prohibited from throttling lawful applications. The Internet is simply too important to allow them to act as such a gatekeeper; the Internet's myriad benefits can only be fully realized when Canadian carriers allow end users to choose the applications and content they prefer."
While Google's entry into the debate captured headlines, they were by no means alone. The Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, Canada's largest high-tech association, warned that "the measures that Bell Canada is applying to manage the traffic of its Sympatico customers as well as its wholesale ISP customers is interfering with the ability of end-users to telecommute and/or work from their home offices and hindering our members from running their business and providing quick customer services."
Bell's actions also attracted the attention of Skype, the popular Internet telephony service. It cautioned that "for the Internet to remain innovative, and continue to deliver productivity gains for consumers and businesses, the CRTC must act – in this proceeding – to protect the interests of consumers."
These big names were joined by other Canadian businesses equally troubled by recent net neutrality developments. Kaboose, a Toronto-based company that ranks as one of the top five family-oriented destinations online, stated that "the recent actions of Bell Canada set a dangerous precedent for targeted restriction of innovation."
Redwire, an emerging online service for small business owners expressed the view that "to permit Bell Canada to continue these restrictive Internet practices would set a dangerous precedent and send a message to Canadian entrepreneurs that this nation is not prepared to support their innovation potential."
Bell obviously has its defenders. Two of its leading competitors – Rogers and Telus – expressed support for its position, with Telus arguing that the CRTC should disregard the privacy concerns raised by several consumer groups. Cisco, a leading seller of the equipment used to manage Internet traffic, warned that "broad net neutrality mandates would frustrate consumer interests," while the Information Technology Association of Canada, which is headed by a former Bell executive, suggested that the net neutrality debate has been "characterized by confused thinking."
The CRTC is unlikely to immediately solve the net neutrality issue nor leave all parties satisfied in the Bell throttling case. However, the case has had a galvanizing effect on the Canadian business community, with many lining up with consumer groups and independent ISPs by pointing to the link between net neutrality and a robust innovation framework.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.