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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Net neutrality, the longstanding principle that Internet service providers should treat all content and applications in an equal manner faces its toughest test yet this week as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada’s broadcast and telecommunications regulator, conducts a hearing on whether ISPs may engage in “differential pricing”.
My Globe and Mail column notes that differential pricing refers to instances in which ISPs adopt a non-neutral approach to content by charging one price for consumers to download or access some content, but a different price for other content. The issue – sometimes known as “zero rating” for cases in which ISPs do not levy any data charges for certain content – may sound technical, but it has huge implications for how Canadians access and pay for Internet services.
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Net neutrality emerged as a top Internet policy issue over 10 years ago as some Internet service providers openly discussed creating a two-tier system with a fast lane for websites and applications willing to pay additional fees and a slow lane for everyone else. The companies maintained that consumers would benefit from the two-tier approach by gaining faster access to premium content.
Internet users and emerging technology companies banded together to oppose the approach, arguing that all traffic should be treated in an equal manner regardless of content, source, or destination. They noted that the two-tier approach could lead to unfair competition and an inability for start-up companies to challenge established players.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that Internet users won the policy battle and years later net neutrality rules can be found worldwide. Indeed, the importance of an “open Internet” was recently affirmed by Navdeep Bains, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Development, who told an international conference that the economy depends upon it.
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