The freedom and content of the internet in Canada could rest on two upcoming hearings at the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commisson (CRTC).
The hearings will help determine the future of net neutrality and of the regulation of new media content in the country. The hearing on net neutrality — which will focus on the controversial issue of traffic management — begins in July; the hearing on the regulation of new media — which will include questions about whether profit-making content providers should be required to fund Canadian content in the same way TV networks are — began in February.
Alain Pineau, the executive director of the Canadian Conference of the Arts (CCA), says the two issues should be treated as one. He says the fact that internet service providers (ISPs) are allowed to control net traffic through extremely intrusive software makes Canadian content, and especially content from low-budget organizations, especially vulnerable.
“It seems that a very easy way to maximize ISPs’ income is to introduce tolls or ‘first-class’ ticket arrangements in which those who can afford it, pay more for better access to their audience,” Pineau writes in an email. “Why build new infrastructure to handle more traffic if you can just charge some people a lot more to use the existing structure and keep others away through higher costs? Simple! Efficient! Profit-maximizing!… Want to make your video available to Iqualuit? That will be an additional 30 percent charge. Oh, and during peak viewing time? Add another 25 percent to that.”
The CCA has not raised the issue of censorship as a primary concern and queer groups in Canada have not taken an active role so far, but groups in the US are mobilizing around net neutrality. The Savetheinternet.com Coalition has several gay and lesbian groups as members.
“The implications of this for us are going to be huge,” says Laura Matanah, the publisher and executive director of Rainbow Rumpus, an online magazine for young people with gay parents. “Net neutrality means the user has access to everything equally. If there’s no net neutrality certain providers could choose not to carry certain content. And this seems likely to me. Any user wouldn’t even be able to find us.”
Nancy Nangeroni, the executive producer of GenderTalk.com, says groups like hers don’t have the money to guarantee equitable access.
“GenderTalk supports net neutrality because if the network loses its neutrality then money will buy better access to certain sites,” she writes in an email. “As a site that presents an alternative perspective on social issues, it is important to GenderTalk that we be as accessible as other sites to all people. Any kind of financially motivated traffic shaping or routing undermines the democratic nature of the ’net, one of its principal benefits, one that has contributed to a more informed citizenry and better information for everyone.”
The American equivalent of the CRTC — the Federal Communications Commission — has ruled in favour of net neutrality and against traffic management but organizations remain worried that unless a guarantee is passed into law, there will continue to be discrimination from ISPs.
In Canada groups like the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) worry that the CRTC might be willing to allow such discrimination against minority voices in the name of guaranteeing Canadian content.
The CRTC has already ruled that ISPs can use traffic management software to allow limited access at certain times of the day to those using Peer to Peer (P2P) technology to download large files. The result is that downloading those files — which can include movies, music or software updates — can take much longer in the afternoon and night than in the morning. The technology also offers ISPs the ability to deny access to any sites they choose or to make such sites harder to access.
In its submission to the CRTC, CIPPIC expresses concern that ISPs might use the spectre of Canadian content funding to allow them to continue controlling access to sites.
“CIPPIC is concerned that some stakeholders are interested in managing internet traffic flows as a way to promote the policy objectives of the Broadcasting Act,” writes CIPPIC director Philippa Lawson. “Under this approach, ISPs would be permitted to earn revenue from traffic prioritization or quality of service agreements as a quid pro quo for their contribution to a fund for the development of high-quality Canadian new media programming. The Commission must be wary of, and inquire into, regulatory policies that would sacrifice the diversity of voices and audience empowerment currently facilitated by the internet in exchange for the funding of a limited amount of high-quality new media content….
“Allowing certain Canadian content producers preferential access to the internet user audience could recreate the centralized and elite-controlled broadcasting environment of the past. This result would remove many of the opportunities that the internet currently offers to small-scale Canadian content producers.”
Pineau says that the CRTC’s insistence on holding the two hearings separately makes such a scenario more likely. While the CCA is calling for ISPs and profit-making internet content providers to be required to fund Canadian content, it is also advocating for traffic management hearings to be linked to new media regulation.
“In our view network neutrality requires all data to be treated equally so that ‘reasonable network management practices’ (an ill-defined concept, obviously), do not discriminate on the basis of application or content,” writes Pineau in an email.
“We have been arguing strongly for some time that the CRTC should hold a hearing to address traffic management techniques and new media simultaneously. Instead the CRTC split the hearings — and is holding the traffic management hearing this summer. Meanwhile the deadline for that hearing is the day before this February’s new media hearing! Coincidence? Hardly.”