Paywalls that restrict online content are annoying but imagine, not too far in the future, internet service providers that have more influence over the content you access and divide the internet into bundles like cable TV packages.
“It’s a very real concern,” says Katy Anderson, a digital rights advocate with OpenMedia, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Vancouver.
She draws attention to a vote scheduled December 14 in the United States whereby the Trump Administration is expected to rescind Obama-era rules that sustain equal access to the internet. The vote may not sound like a big deal but Anderson says we may see a drastic changes in the way U.S. Americans experience the internet, including unprecedented new powers for internet service providers (ISPs) to charge premium fees, block or slow access to select websites and to essentially pick favourites.
Offering a glimpse of what may come, she cites a Canadian example from 2005 when Telus blocked its internet subscribers from viewing a website supporting union workers on strike.
“That was a long time ago but it could happen again,” she says.
As December 14 approaches, hundreds of protests have taken place in all 50 statesto voice opposition against changes to what is commonly called ‘net neutrality’. There have also been calls for action and to delay the vote.
What is Net Neutrality?
“Net neutrality is at the heart of the internet,” Anderson says, acknowledging the topic “sounds boring” to most Canadians despite the enormous impact it has on our lives.
In essence, net neutrality helps to foster a ‘level playing field’ for everyone to access the internet by treating all data and content equally. From a business perspective, net neutrality also gives smaller businesses (like Netflix, once upon a time) a chance against larger and more established competitors. Anderson emphasizes that net neutrality is a crucial principal—not universally shared—that fosters key pillars that OpenMedia champions including freedom of speech, privacy, and access to the web.
If you’ve missed it, take a few minutes to watch John Oliver’s explanation of net neutrality [caution: there’s a bit of profanity] as he injects humour and flavour into an otherwise dull and traditionally neglected yet important topic
What About the Internet in Canada?
While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a large role concerning internet rules in the U.S., Anderson makes a clear distinction in Canada between the largely invisible forces that essentially own the infrastructure (largely Canada’s ‘Big 5’ internet and telecoms companies including Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Telus, and Quebecor) and the major players that put forward rules and protections for internet content including the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission(CTRC), Department of Canadian Heritage, and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED).
“The Department of Canadian Heritage oversees the CTRC,” Anderson explains, noting that most Canadians are surprised when they learn it has anything to do with our internet.
The Minister of Canadian Heritage, Mélanie Joly, concluded consultations (known as DigiCanCon) for digital Canadian content in October 2017 and the CRTC is currently seeking additional input from Canadians that, according to Anderson, will shape the future of the internet in Canada.
She says that one of OpenMedia’s online campaigns, Don’t Let the Internet turn into Cable 2.0, helps to inform the public about these consultations and has encouraged more than 20,000 Canadians to become involved so far.
“They are two separate acts at the moment,” Anderson explains.
“If you are going to re-write these acts, you’re opening up every protection that Canada has about the web,” she says, noting that another concern is the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that includes a Digital Trade chapter and may be finalized before the end of 2017.
Demonstrating the significant power and influence that aims to dissolve net neutrality in the U.S., more than $572 million USD ($735 million CDN) was spent by the US telecom industry while lobbying the FCC to kill net neutrality between 2008 and 2016. Meanwhile in Canada, an alleged CRTC draft document indicates that media companies may have examined the feasibility of ending net neutrality in Canada by using online piracy (and mechanisms to stop it) as justification for more control.
“The internet I love is the one of the 1990s and the promise of…how it could change the way that we live and work and communicate with one another,” Anderson says, “but the internet of 2017 is one that is often controlled by corporate interests. We should pay attention and fight for the internet that had a utopian promise back in the 1990s.”
Offering more insight on this topic is Spencer Callaghan, communications manager for the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) in Ottawa that supports Canada’s internet community.
“Obviously the FCC deliberations are a concern for us,” he says.
“The decision hasn’t been made yet, and obviously we hope they will support the open internet… but it would be naïve of us to suggest that our largest trading partner and essentially the largest economy in the world going in that direction isn’t a worrying sign for the future of the internet.”
Callaghan emphasizes that support for net neutrality in Canada is strong.
“At the end of the day, the CRTC has supported net neutrality in the strongest terms possible, globally,” he says.
“We don’t see any sign that it’s about to change and we hope that it won’t. There doesn’t seem to be any political will [in Canada] to do that but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be vigilant,” he says, noting that the public should be paying attention to laws that politicians are passing and what ISPs are doing.
“Canada has an opportunity here… to show that we’re on the right path and this is the way to go for the future of the internet.”
While things aren’t perfect in Canada such as tiered Internet packages (larger data amounts and faster speeds for those who can afford it), OpenMedia and other advocates are concerned about much deeper problems including the need for lawsto specifically protect net neutrality and the interests of Canadians.
“We’ll probably continue to lobby Minister Joly and Minister [Navdeep Singh] Bains [of Innovation, Science and Economic Development],” Anderson says, noting that OpenMedia also collaborates occasionally with Citizen Lab, Public Interest Advocacy Centre, and the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic.
“The internet is in danger,” Anderson reiterates as an underlying concern, and one that is unlikely to cease mid-December, regardless of a vote. Net neutrality, while largely invisible, is a critical component of our online expression and virtual experiences. With that in mind, it probably deserves a better strategy than ‘time will tell’ to see how the future unfolds.
It seems that internet, as we know it, needs your help too. For more information, check out OpenMedia.