This week’s announcement that the U.S. telecommunications regulator plans to roll back net-neutrality regulations sparked an immediate backlash from those who fear that the decision will turn the Internet into a cable-like service dominated by the carriers and deep-pocketed giants that can afford to pay new fees to keep their content on the fast lane.
My Globe and Mail op-ed notes that the U.S. order, which would also block states from carrying out their own versions of policies that stop telecom carriers from leveraging their gatekeeper status by treating similar content or applications differently, is set for a vote next month.
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Canada seemed lost when it came to Internet policy a little over a decade ago. The government showed scant interest in the technicalities of Internet services and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission stood idly by as leading Internet providers engaged in traffic shaping to limit speeds of some applications and mused openly about new fees for the right to transmit content to subscribers. Internally, government policy makers were seemingly untroubled that telecom companies were gearing up to be gatekeepers of Internet content.
My regular Globe and Mail column notes those early Internet policies are unrecognizable today as Canada has emerged as a world leader in supporting net neutrality, the principle that all content and applications should be treated equally and that choices made by Internet users should be free from ISP or telecom interference. The policies do not guarantee Internet success – no law does – but it signals a clear commitment to placing consumers and creators in the Internet driver’s seat.
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The North America Free Trade Agreement renegotiation is likely to start within the next few months as the U.S. triggers provisions that will re-open Canada’s most important trade deal. With U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross emphasizing the need to address digital economy issues, I wrote about a digital economy-era NAFTA in last week’s Globe and Mail, noting that there were some issues (including online contract enforcement and consumer protection) that should relatively uncontroversial.
In light of yesterday’s U.S. Congressional decision to overturn online privacy rules, it is worth revisiting the NAFTA renegotiation issue and consider whether Canada will need to safeguard its Internet policy. I noted last week that the U.S. was already likely to target two Internet-related privacy measures: data localization and data transfers. Data localization, which could mandate retention of personal information on computer servers located in Canada. has become an increasingly popular policy measure worldwide as countries respond to concerns about U.S.-based surveillance and the subordination of privacy protections for non-U.S. citizens and residents. The Trans Pacific Partnership included restrictions on data localization requirements at the insistence of U.S. negotiators and those provisions are likely to resurface during the NAFTA talks. Similarly, limitations on data transfer restrictions could surface, restricting the ability to establish privacy safeguards and placing Canada in a difficult position with the EU requiring restrictions and NAFTA prohibiting them.
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U.S. President Barack Obama yesterday came out strongly in favour of net neutrality, urging the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to uphold core net neutrality principles. Obama’s comments was unsurprisingly welcomed by net neutrality activists throughout the U.S., though some caution that the ultimate decision still lies with the regulatory agency. Obama focused on greater transparency along with rules to ensure no blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. I wrote earlier this year on how Canada passed net neutrality regulations (termed Internet traffic management practices) in 2009, which address many of the issues raised by Obama and has not resulted in the horrors suggested by critics of net neutrality policy.
Obama’s decision to wade into the net neutrality debate highlights how politicians can no longer simply avoid telecom, broadcast, and Internet issues by claiming that the matter is solely for regulators to determine. Policy issues such as net neutrality and Internet regulation have profound importance for millions and we should not be content to leave the issue exclusively to unelected regulators (no matter transparent their processes).
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Appeared in the Toronto Star on May 10, 2014 as How Canada Avoided the Latest Great Net Neutrality Battle The Internet community has reacted with alarm in recent weeks to a U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposal that would significantly undermine net neutrality, the principle that underlies equal treatment for […]
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