Net neutrality hasn't yet made an imprint in Canada’s national dialogue, but the controvery addresses nothing less than who acts as the gatekeeper to the most powerful communication tool we have.
Net throttling – also called traffic shaping – can be defined as the control of computer network traffic in order to optimize performance, or the alteration of traffic on a particular connection to increase efficiency throughout the network.
Canadian Internet service providers like Bell and Rogers use traffic shaping as a network management tool, arguing it’s necessary to limit download speeds for peer-to-peer (P2P) programs that can hog up to half their network’s capacity and slow connections across the board.
P2P applications are freely chosen and completely legal applications and are used by open source independent companies, by schools , independent media productions, and many other public and private agencies, including the likes of major Canadian universities and the CBC to distribute media content.
Bell openly admits it shapes traffic by slowing down transfer rates of P2P file-sharing applications during peak hours, claiming it’s the most practical approach to managing its network. The company began limiting speeds for its own Sympatico customers in November 2007 and extended the practice to its wholesalers last March.
Then last year, the Canadian Association of Internet Providers brought the telecommunications giant in front of the CRTC, charging its traffic shaping policies –implemented without prior notice- stifled competition and made it impossible for CAIP members to manage their own services.
Members claimed that download rates were slowed by as much as 90 per cent while Bell was reallocating bandwidth to its ultra-high-speed Internet access and other value-added services.
CAIP – a group of 55 independent ISPs who rent a portion of Bell’s network - charged Bell with contravening Canada’s Telecommunications Act through alleged unjust discrimination, undue preference or advantage, and the control of content or influencing the meaning or purpose of telecommunications by a carrier.
CAIP, supported by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, and Google among others, argued that better methods of regulating traffic congestion included setting bandwidth limits, creating excess bandwidth usage charges, customer-specific throttling or simply upgrading network capacity.
In November, the federal regulator sided with Bell within the specific context of CAIP’s case, arguing that the company hadn’t discriminated between wholesale and retails customers, that there was no editorial control of the filtered content , and noting that the booming popularity of online video and other Internet trends could, in fact, congest Bell’s network.
But the ruling came with two concessions: that Bell give its wholesale customers at least 30 days notice before changing usage guidelines and that the CRTC would hold public hearings on net neutrality this July.
CAIP chair Tom Copeland said he’s pleased the federal regulator is taking the complaint a step further because the real concern - that of traffic manipulation - had yet to be addressed.
"Ultimately, we get into philosophical and political arguments, censoring at the worst level,” he said.
"Who's to stop (the company) from eventually deciding Bell clients will get a slower trip to the Toronto Star, for example?"
Unilaterally throttling one type of traffic is the wrong tool to fix network congestion, he said, suggesting the company work on a client-to-client basis instead.
"That's the way most of us treat this type of situation. We look at the root cause," said Copeland.
Google. who is also lobbying for net neutratlity in the United States, supported CAIP by criticizing Bell for failing to expand its network and accusing the company of breaking CRTC regulations that state the net should be technologically and competitively neutral.
"From consumer, competition and innovation perspectives, throttling applications that consumers choose is inconsistent with a content and application-neutral internet, and a violation of Canadian telecommunications law," the company wrote in a submission to the federal regulator.
"Protecting end user choice is the central issue in this proceeding, but also a much larger issue. It goes to the heart of the internet and how it acts as an extraordinary platform for innovation and fair competition."
Google also announced a new initiative in January that would allow users to examine the state of their broadband connection.
In the United States, a net neutrality bill will soon be introduced to the senate that would enshrine net neutrality into law, preventing the ISPs from shaping traffic on their networks.
Michael Geist, the Canadian Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, has been following the issue closely and says Canadians have been asleep at the wheel.
"In Canada, our CRTC has not been as publically engaged," he said.
"But what they do make clear is that there's wide-spread use of traffic shaping , and the marketing materials tell one story but the realities are different.”
Geist explained that the Internet allows people not only to communicate but to network and participate as well, creating essentially, a massive international public square. But Canadians have vested an enormous amount of power in a small number of companies and aren't safeguarding our digital democracy, he said.
"Most of us appreciate how important (the Internet) is to culture and commerce," said Geist. "The notion that this is just about downloads is incorrect."
If Canadians don't safeguard net neutrality, said Copeland, we’ll all still be able to go online - but it will be slower for some of us.
"We'll start seeing, basically, Internet for hire,” he said.
“The carriers will say: 'If you want your traffic to come through out network, it will cost you this much.' And that's not what the Internet is based on. If they're allowed to do this, we'll see a different model that will impede the growth of the Internet and innovation, and Canadians, will lose out. It's not about kids in the basement downloading music. It's about Canadians being able to to do what they want and when they want on the Internet."