The Canadian government’s strong pro-net neutrality position has served as its telecom policy foundation with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other government ministers frequently citing Canada’s commitment to the policy. In fact, the current review of broadcast and telecommunications legislation described net neutrality as “a key Government priority given its importance for freedom of expression and the ‘innovation without permission’ ethos that underpins the success of the Internet.”
Yet despite the emphasis on strong net neutrality rules, CRTC Chair Ian Scott used a keynote speech last week to open the door to watering down Canadian net neutrality rules, noting his desire for “flexibility” with the legislation.
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One of President Barack Obama’s selling points for the TPP has been claims that it helps preserve “an open and free Internet.” The references to an open and free Internet, which is closely linked to net neutrality, may strike a chord with those concerned with digital issues. However, the Trouble with the TPP is that a close examination of the text and a comparison with existing net neutrality rules in many TPP countries reveals that it doesn’t advance the issue. In fact, the standards are so weak and unenforceable that at least half of the TPP countries already far exceed them.
Article 14.10 of the TPP provides:
Subject to applicable policies, laws and regulations, the Parties recognise the benefits of consumers in their territories having the ability to:
(a) access and use services and applications of a consumer’s choice available on the Internet, subject to reasonable network management;
(b) connect the end-user devices of a consumer’s choice to the Internet, provided that such devices do not harm the network; and
(c) access information on the network management practices of a consumer’s Internet access service supplier.
As a starting point, this is not mandated obligation. The TPP countries merely “recognize” the benefits of some net neutrality provisions. For those countries without net neutrality rules, there is no requirement to implement anything in order to comply with the agreement. In fact, if there was any doubt about the lack of enforceability, the entire provision is prefaced by the reference to “subject to applicable policies, and regulations.” In other words, the provision doesn’t advance anything for countries without net neutrality provisions.
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In December 2010, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission passed the Open Internet Order, which featured relatively weak net neutrality rules. Despite their limited impact (the Order did not go as far as the Canadian Internet traffic management practices which were established a year earlier), Verizon challenged their validity in court. A U.S. appeals court sided with Verizon in 2014, ruling that the FCC did not have the authority to issue the order. The Verizon win proved to be short-lived, however, since later this week, the FCC will pass new net neutrality rules that go much further than the 2010 order. As Ars Technica recently noted, the Verizon net neutrality gamble backfired.
The Verizon blunder came to mind this past weekend as word began to circulate that Bell is seeking leave from the courts to challenge the CRTC’s recent net neutrality ruling involving its mobile television service. The company argues that the CRTC does not have the jurisdiction to issue its ruling under the Telecommunications Act (which forbids undue preferences) since the service should be governed by the Broadcasting Act (which does not have an undue preference provision). From Bell’s perspective, the court challenge presumably seems like a no-brainer: if it wins, the ruling is struck down. If it loses, it still delays the implementation of the CRTC decision for months or even years, thereby maintaining its existing practice for the time being.
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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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Net neutrality has been one of the defining Internet policy issues of the past decade. Starting with early concerns that large telecom and Internet providers would seek to generate increased profits by creating a two-tier Internet with a fast lane (for companies that paid additional fees to deliver their online content quicker) and a slow lane (for everyone else), the issue captured the attention of governments and telecom regulators.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that while the net neutrality challenges evolved over time, the core question invariably boiled down to whether Internet providers would attempt to leverage their gatekeeper position to create an unfair advantage by treating similar content, applications or other services in different ways.
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