The Fight for the Open Internet

Since its inception the Internet has promised an extraordinary opportunity for a huge array of communicative activity. People have new ways of communicating directly with one another and independent media producers can distribute their content cheaply.

More information seems to be more available to more people every day. The open Internet is also an organizing tool for many civil-society groups, and here it is an especially exciting space for innovation and experimentation.

However, we would be naive to take this medium for granted at a time when we are on the cusp of losing the open Internet. Major Internet service providers (ISPs) are hoping they can increase their current high level of profitability by becoming Internet gatekeepers.

According to Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, these ISPs already have a recent “history of blocking access to contentious content (Telus), limiting bandwidth for alternative content delivery channels (Rogers), and raising the prospect of levying fees for priority content delivery.”

During the Telus strike in 2005, the corporation blocked access to a website run by striking Telus employees called “Voices for Change” (and at least 766 other websites). Those familiar with network-control issues in Canada also accuse Rogers and Bell of limiting peer-to-peer (P2P) applications, which people use to share audio, video and other digital data with one another. So, here we have ISPs blocking or at least limiting the use of what is likely the most innovative, creative and participatory use of the Internet. In response to customer concerns, Bell recently admitted that they “are now using Internet Traffic Management to restrict accounts that are using a large portion of bandwidth during peak hours. Some of the applications that are included are the following: BitTorrent, Gnutella, LimeWire, Kazaa….”
Toward Net Neutrality

Shaping and controlling Internet traffic in this way defies the core principle that preserves the free and open Internet, a principle known as “net neutrality.” Net neutrality requires that Internet service providers not discriminate — including speeding up or slowing down Web content — based on its source, ownership, or destination. Net neutrality protects our ability to direct our own on-line activities. With net neutrality in place, a network’s job is to move data in a non-discriminatory manner, based on what people want.

One problem is that Canada does not have enforceable net-neutrality legislation, so there is very little structure in place to prevent the big ISPs from turning the Internet into a network resembling a tolled highway with a slow lane and fast lane. Therefore, if your website, content, application, or service wants to use the fast lane, you’ll have to pay the toll to get access. The ISPs can make a lot of money with this scheme, but we’re at risk of losing the Internet as we’ve known it. Independent and small-scale media producers certainly won’t be able to pay the extra toll and so will not be able to compete with big media conglomerates, who can afford the fees to usurp media competition.

New media companies will have almost no chance of being successful unless they get huge investors behind them. Innovative projects and organizations from Wikipedia to Canada’s own Bryght would not exist if they had to come up with huge investment dollars to satisfy telecom greed. If we allow the ISPs to become gatekeepers, we’ll not only tax existing technology innovators, we’ll also be taxing future innovators, as well.

Who loses in this scenario? Labour groups, public-interest groups, NGOs, small business, new-media businesses and everyday citizens. Sadly, citizens may be extorted in several ways: as Internet users, we will have much less choice in on-line media; as communicators, we will have less ability to communicate freely with one another; and as taxpayers, we’ll either need to deal with slow government websites or deal with more of our tax dollars going toward fast-lane tolls. We could end up with a largely prescribed menu of “choices,” many of which will be brought to us by these very same ISPs.

Bell recently stated, “Our position on network diversity/neutrality is that it should be determined by market forces, not regulation.” Somehow, they expect “market forces” to be at work even when they are blocking the services their customers choose to use. When two companies dominate a market, as they do in most Canadian markets, these big telecom corporations regulate the service to favour their own financial interests.

Big telecom companies have a clear financial incentive to prioritize their own applications and services, and those of their partners. This is an obvious case of these huge telecom corporations fighting for big-business regulation of the Internet, rather than citizen regulation of the Internet through the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and their own sovereign choices.
Let’s Learn from Recent History — and Hope the CRTC Does, Too

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