There probably isn’t anything more exciting to watch right now for tech nerds than the situation regarding net neutrality that’s unfolding in both the United States and Canada. In the space of a week, it has gone from a fomenting revolt to a full-out war, especially down south.
Following last week’s letter from 150 technology companies, Federal Communications Commission chair Tom Wheeler backed down somewhat on his original proposal to allow internet providers to institute so-called paid prioritization of traffic, or the effective creation of a fast lane for online companies willing to pay extra.
Feeling the heat from big tech firms including Google, Amazon and Microsoft, not to mention some of his fellow commissioners, Wheeler instead suggested that the FCC might want to consider reclassifying internet provision so that it qualifies as a telecommunications service, which could then be subject to regulations.
This is exactly what net neutrality proponents want – they say that strong FCC rules are the only way to prevent big phone and cable companies from ultimately establishing slow and fast lanes on the internet.
A disparate group of musicians and artists including the likes of Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry and actor Mark Ruffalo added their voices to that chorus on Tuesday with their own letter that basically conveyed the same sentiments as the technology companies:
Your proposed path would open the door to widespread discrimination online. It would give internet service providers the green light to implement pay-for-priority schemes that would be disastrous for startups, non-profits and everyday internet users who cannot afford these unnecessary tolls. We urge you to scrap these proposed rules and instead restore the principal of online non-discrimination by reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service.
Not surprisingly, the big internet providers including Comcast, Verizon and AT&T fought back with their own letter. Their counterpoints were the same as they usually are when it comes to proposed regulation: such a move would lead to lower investment, slower innovation and higher prices for consumers:
Collectively, we would face years more of uncertainty and, as a result, an economy deprived of the stable regulatory framework needed to promote future investment, innovation and consumer choice.
The FCC is set to vote on its plan on Thursday. With pressure mounting from technology companies, senators, plain old internet users, artists and even the Incredible Freakin’ Hulk, the U.S. is facing a real and significant test of just how much regulatory capture there is with its governing bodies, which is a larger issue that extends beyond just net neutrality. Without knowing it, Wheeler – a former cable industry lobbyist – may have lit a spark that could explode into something bigger.
Up here in the Great White North, net neutrality is also a hot topic thanks to a bomb dropped by Netflix on Monday. The streaming service on Monday released internet speed rankings for a number of countries, including Canada. The results showed that Bell is the fastest, but more importantly, Rogers is the slowest. Rogers actually ranks as the slowest ISP across a number of Netflix countries.
University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist raised some pointed questions about Rogers’ performance on Twitter, such as whether the company is purposely slowing down Netflix. The company – which has in prior independent tests been found to be among the worst throttlers of services such as BitTorrent in the world* – denied it was doing so, stating that, “We’ve doubled capacity in the links that carry traffic from Netflix to our customers.”
Anyone who’s been paying attention to all of this knows that this is how the big net neutrality dispute started in the United States. Comcast was caught slowing down Netflix, citing congestion, which then forced the streaming company to pay more for proper connectivity.
In light of that, Geist has rightly posed a series of questions for Rogers, which the company has not yet answered:
- How long did it know that Netflix speeds were slow?
- Why are Netflix-specific links within the network the problem?
- Does Rogers separate Netflix traffic from other traffic?
- If so, why does it not disclose the practice?
- Is the slowing of video a violation of Section 36 of the Telecommunications Act, which the CRTC has said amounts to controlling the content?
- Are other online video services affected in the same manner?
- Are Rogers online video services affected?
It’s worth noting there are some key differences in how net neutrality is treated in the United States and Canada. Here, where internet service is considered a telecommunications service, regulators have much more power when it comes to enforcing rules. In the U.S., where the internet is considered an information service, the FCC’s legal authority is more limited.
Rogers could be in for some big trouble given the Netflix revelations since the FCC’s counterpart, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, does have the legal authority to do something about such misdeeds.
Beyond that, there’s also the other net neutrality issue in Canada that just happens to be coinciding with all of this. The CRTC posted the final replies on the complaint filed by Manitoba student Ben Klass over Bell’s exemption of its mobile TV service from data caps. It’s fun reading, with Bell arguing that its mobile TV is actually a broadcasting service and therefore exempt from the CRTC’s net neutrality rules.
That flimsy rationalization will similarly test the independence and supposed consumer-friendly focus of the CRTC, an organization that – very much like the FCC – has faced its share of accusations over corporate regulatory capture.
Net neutrality is thus at a watershed moment on both sides of the border. It’s not hyperbole to say that the fate of the internet in North America hangs in the balance. How these key decisions play out could also have larger repercussions on governance as a whole.
*Those tests were performed in 2011. Rogers says it stopped traffic management at the end of 2012.