The Trump administration appears likely to repeal its regulations governing net neutrality, to the delight of U.S. internet service providers. It’s a development that has many proponents of a free and open internet howling in protest.
How will the changes affect the tech and business communities up here in Canada, not to mention your average Canuck web surfer? Opinions differ, but with such close economic ties —and with NAFTA currently under renegotiation— the worry exists that Canada may feel the pressure to soften its current position, one which is said to be at the international vanguard for protecting Internet users’ rights.
On Tuesday, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced its plans to pull back on an Obama-era regulatory framework surrounding net neutrality. FCC chairman Ajit Pai has called the regulations “heavy-handed” and claimed that they are a block to investment by tech companies and internet service providers in communications infrastructure.
Yet many see the regulations as central to safeguarding the internet as an equal-access platform and central to both free speech and free enterprise in today’s wired world. Net neutrality is the idea that internet service providers (ISPs) like Bell Canada and Telus should not be allowed to give preferential treatment to some websites over others, for instance, by speeding up or slowing down user access to particular sites or by blocking some websites altogether.
We are just absorbing the position the [US] president has taken and looking at the impact it’s going to have in the United States and in Canada,” Trudeau said…
That image of a multi-tiered web where users pay different rates depending on the sites that they want to visit (much like a cable tv subscription, for example) is anathema to a free and democratic society, say its critics from a wide range of backgrounds including free speech advocates, business groups and tech companies like Facebook, Google and Netflix, all of whom have all recently come out with statements opposing the FCC’s proposal.
“The success of America’s start-up ecosystem depends on more than improved broadband speeds. We also depend on an open internet,” reads an open letter sent to the FCC from a group of over 1,000 small businesses across the US. “We’re deeply concerned with your intention to undo the existing legal framework. Without net neutrality, the incumbents who provide access to the internet would be able to pick winners or losers in the market.”
Even Canada’s own PM, Justin Trudeau, spoke to the issue, saying he’s “very concerned” about the attacks on net neutrality in the United States.
“Net neutrality is something that is essential for small businesses, for consumers, and it is essential to keep the freedom associated with the internet alive,” Trudeau said yesterday at a press conference in Toronto to announce the government’s new affordable housing strategy. “We are just absorbing the position the [US] president has taken and looking at the impact it’s going to have in the United States and in Canada,” Trudeau said.
The loss of net neutrality in the US is a loss for all Internet users,” says Michael Geist in conversation with Cantech Letter, “but politicians and regulators in Canada have been strong supporters [of net neutrality]. I don’t see the Canadian system changing.”
What would the likely impact be?
Canada’s Telecommunications Act already has strong regulatory controls concerning internet service providers, ones which were underlined in a ruling earlier this year by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) against Quebec provider, Videotron.
The company was told to remove its zero rated Unlimited Music service which gave free access to music streaming content to customers who were willing to pay extra. “Internet service providers should treat data traffic equally to foster consumer choice, innovation and the free exchange of ideas,” said the CRTC in its report, which came with a new set of rules against differential pricing practices.
Michael Geist is Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa and he claims that in clearly staking its position on the issue, Canada and Canadian internet users should continue to be well protected even if the United States ends up taking a different course. “The loss of net neutrality in the US is a loss for all Internet users,” says Geist in conversation with Cantech Letter, “but politicians and regulators in Canada have been strong supporters [of net neutrality]. I don’t see the Canadian system changing.”
The Canadian tech community may even benefit from the softening of regulations in the States, says Geist. “I think it will make Canada more attractive on network management, for example,” he says.
Geist says there may be a timeliness to the developments, coming as they are while Canada, the US and Mexico rework the North American Free Trade Agreement. Asked whether NAFTA’s renegotiation could see Canada feeling pressure to soften its position on net neutrality so as to be more in line with the US, Geist demurs. “I’d like to think it could or should be the opposite. A Digital Trade chapter that is worth anything would include strong net neutrality rules,” he says.
“An ISP might offer a US-only internet package, where people’s service solely gives them access to websites with a US domain,” says Laura Tribe of internet advocacy group OpenMedia. “That’s the kind of stuff that’s on the table here.”
Others are less optimistic, thinking that Canadian businesses are bound to suffer from deregulation in the States which could effectively give preference to American companies. “It’ll essentially be a pay-to-play market in the US,” says Laura Tribe of internet advocacy group OpenMedia, to Cantech Letter. “The companies that control internet access, the big ISPs, will be able to carve up the internet into whatever packages they want, and that’s an issue not just for consumers but for the people and companies trying to get their websites accessible to consumers,” says Tribe.
“That could mean, for example, an ISP might offer a US-only internet package, where people’s service solely gives them access to websites with a US domain,” says Tribe. “That’s the kind of stuff that’s on the table here.”
Tribe adds that while Canada has so far been holding strong on net neutrality, those regulations could be vulnerable to future challenges. She points out that the Liberals under Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly are planning a review and revamp of the Telecommunications Act starting next year.
“When you see really big telecom companies in the US being able to pressure their government into deregulation on such a scale, the worry is that might embolden companies here in Canada to try and do the same,” she says. “For now, we’re in a really great position, but those regulations aren’t set in stone.”
And while net neutrality has become a political hot-button issue in the States, the sense in Canada is that it’s not likely to. For one, the push to regulate was first made under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, and the CRTC’s regulations have so far received widespread support across political lines.
“It’s not really a partisan issue at all,” says Tribe. “Net neutrality is something that impacts people of every type of politics, every socio-economic level.”