The Canadian Press is out this evening with an important story that reveals the government's true view on net neutrality. Based on documents obtained under the Access to Information Act, they provide a clear picture of an Industry Minister and policy makers content to leave the issue alone, despite acknowledging that major telcos such as Bell and Telus are "determined to play a greater role in how Internet content is delivered" and that "they [Bell and Telus] believe they should be the gatekeepers of content, with the freedom to impose fees for their role."
The documents were prepared for the Minister in anticipation of questions that might arise after Videotron President Robert Depatie mused publicly about a new tariff or fee for carrying content. The departmental response as contained in a Question Period Card:
"The Internet is not regulated in Canada. There is no regulation of the relationship between Internet service providers and the providers of Internet content. There is currently considerable discussion in the industry about the implications of telecommunications companies who provide network and Interent service taking a greater role in determining how Internet content will be delivered and at what cost, if any. The Telecommunications Policy Review Panel reviewed this issue in its March 2006 report. My department is continuing to examine and assess the recommendations, including the issue of net neutrality, that were made in this report."
While that may be the official line, the documents reveal very different thinking behind the scenes.
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My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, homepage version ) discusses the renewed net neutrality concerns in Canada in light of comments from Videotron President Robert Depatie promoting the establishment of a new Internet transmission tariff that would require content creators of all sizes to fork over millions of dollars for the right to transmit content to ISP subscribers. I note that there is mounting evidence that content and application discrimination is already here. In Canada, the Depatie remarks join a handful of examples that include Telus' 2005 decision during a labour dispute to block access to a website that supported its union (blocking hundreds of additional websites in the process), Shaw Cable's ten dollar surcharge for "premium" Internet telephony service (which generated a complaint to the CRTC from Vonage, a leading Internet telephony provider), and Rogers' decision to limit bandwidth for legitimate peer-to-peer software applications (without full public disclosure of the practice).
While opponents of network neutrality legislation argue that a competitive marketplace removes the need for government intervention, the reality is that the market for broadband services in Canada is at best an oligopoly. Most Canadians have limited choice, with consumers in urban areas choosing between indistinguishable cable and telephone Internet packages, while Canadians in rural communities are often left with no broadband options at all.
In light of the current environment, a recent Canadian telecommunications policy review directly addressed the network neutrality issue.
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Appeared in the Toronton Star on November 6, 2006 as Fear of a Two-Tier Internet Last week, while most cable and telecommunications observers were focused on changes to the rules for income trusts, news of record earnings for Telus, and a Statistics Canada report that illustrated how the cable industry […]
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Tyler Hamilton of the Toronto Star has an interview with Tim Berners-Lee in which the WWW founder expresses concern about a two-tier Internet.
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Update: I have now had the chance to read the Vonage filing which is better described as a request for an investigation as opposed to a complaint. In fact, Vonage concludes its submission by arguing that "Shaw' s QofS Service has the potential to greatly damage nascent competition for local VoIP services across its serving territory. Vonage Canada is of the view, however, that not enough is known at this point about the Shaw service in order to formulate an appropriate regulatory response."
Vonage Canada has filed a complaint with the CRTC against Shaw over Shaw's VoIP premium surcharge. The cable company charges a $10 "quality of service enhancement" fee for VoIP users, which Vonage is characterizing as a VoIP tax. Vonage argues that because it "competes directly with the telephone services of the network operators that also provide the high-speed Internet access, the incentives to discriminate against us are clear. This will result in less innovation, less choice and higher prices for Canadian consumers in the long run."
This could become a hugely important case since much of the two-tier Internet is based on similar enhancement fees for either customers or web services. The CRTC mistakenly declined to address the net neutrality last year in its VoIP decision, despite considerable evidence that this was an emerging issue that could have debilitating effect on the Internet. In the months since that decision, both the telcos and cable cos have openly discussed their plans for a two-tier Internet. While it appears that Vonage has focused primarily on the need for greater transparency with the Shaw fee, this has opened the door to the CRTC becoming more engaged on network neutrality.
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