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Why should queers care about net neutrality?

CRTC releases new rules for internet service providers, but some say it's not enough

LOCKDOWN. Net neutrality activists say the CRTC's new rules are a step in the right direction, but they say more needs to be done to protect consumers. Credit: Corey Pierce illustration

Canada’s telecom regulator released its much-anticipated net neutrality decision in October, but some say the new framework doesn’t go quite far enough.


WHAT IS NET NEUTRALITY?
The above YouTube video, produced for a US audience, explains the basics of net neutrality.

SaveOurNet.ca describes net neutrality as “non-discriminatory treatment of internet traffic… Network neutrality means that the network provider’s only job is to move data — not to choose which data to privilege with higher quality service.”

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) finally acknowledged that the big telecom companies have been throttling the net by tossing specific internet traffic onto the slow lane. After years of a free-for-all policy vacuum in cyberspace, the CRTC is beginning to challenge the big telecom’s self-appointed role as gatekeepers on what is supposed to be a free and open internet.

The CRTC’s new rules for internet service providers (ISPs), if enforced, will enhance transparency by requiring service providers to disclose when they engage in internet traffic management, what content is being throttled and by how much. In a completely free and open internet, ISPs would deliver packets of data blindly.

In its decision, the CRTC also banned the use of personal information obtained through traffic management practices. The CRTC also stated that service providers ought to prioritize investments in broadband expansion and to engage in economic measures — such as billing higher users more — before considering discriminatory traffic management practices.

Justin Stayshyn, a techie with a huge following on Twitter (@UnionSt), says queers should keep a close eye on the issue of net neutrality.

“Given the history of censorship against our community, such as the material destined for Little Sister book store being stopped at the border, we should be particularly vigilant,” he says. “Some politicians have used the censorship of erotica for their own political gain.”

In the US, some school boards and businesses have used filters to censor gay websites.

“The real problem right now is from telcos who want to create a tiered system on the internet which could result in limiting or restricting some people’s access,” says Stayshyn. “So there are not only concerns with potentially censoring our community, but of corporations creating tiered users and even making it too expensive for queer people who already are finding it financially difficult to bridge the digital divide.”

Apart from concerns about affordability and equity, another glitch is that throttling can continue under the new framework. Major ISPs can request CRTC permission to engage in internet traffic management, and, if they get the nod, they must give customers one month’s notice and secondary ISPs two month’s notice.

The CRTC has set up a new complaints policy, which places the onus squarely on consumers to collect evidence and file a complaint against any infringements of net neutrality. ISPs, in turn, are required to demonstrate the necessity of internet traffic management.

Many bloggers worry that ISPs will continue to diminish the open internet by using “package-shaping” practices or prioritizing the kinds of information being sent through the pipes. Big phone and cable have been found meddling surreptitiously with their subscribers’ internet communications, especially VoIP (voice over internet protocol) and peer-to-peer applications for downloading, such as BitTorrent — free software designed to send large amounts of data across the web. The driving force behind such practices is the uncompetitive structure of the telecom industry in which major telephone and cable companies also act as ISPs. They can leverage their position as ISPs for their own benefit in their other areas of commerce, without fear of losing customers.

So what can you do if you suspect that your ISP is interfering with your internet connections like making some sites harder to access than others? Or if your connection slows to a crawl when you are downloading video and audio files?

Free software is available to test your connection. The Electronic Frontier Foundation was inspired to create Test Your ISP tools after Comcast, a major US carrier, was found meddling with its subscribers’ use of BitTorrent to share files over the internet. In 2008, they released software named Switzerland, which allows concerned internet users to investigate possible violations of network neutrality by big telecom companies.

Also jumping into the fray is the consortium behind the Measurement Lab website. The community-based effort promotes internet measurement tools, including their new tool Glasnost, which allows internet users to check if their broadband connection is being throttled. Glasnost can help answer the question posed on their website: “When an internet application doesn’t work as expected, how can you tell whether the problem is caused by your broadband connection, the application or something else?”

Kim Elliott, publisher of rabble.ca and a steering committee member of OpenMedia.ca, says the importance of net neutrality to queer websites and bloggers cannot be overestimated. Elliot says the free and open internet has served as a crucial medium for gay rights and other progressive movements to reach out to communities beyond urban centres and across borders.

“The open internet has made possible a connecting of people and issues in ways no one imagined,” says Elliott. “In the media, with corporate-owned media no longer the gatekeeper for how people learn about each other and news, spaces for new kinds of connections and for the advancement of diverse social interests have proliferated.

“Net throttling risks reversing all that progress in multiple ways as it rejigs the internet to prioritize those same corporate and political interests the internet gave us the opportunity to be free from. Net neutrality guarantees equal access.”

Tor Sandberg, producer at rabbletv, agrees. “The net has facilitated a democratization of whose voices are heard. LGBTQ and other marginalized groups and views are now able to circumvent monopolistic print and broadcast mediums through the relative low costs involved with publishing on the internet. All this is at risk if the corporate gatekeepers of the internet are allowed to shape our flow of information. The internet operates on public infrastructure, and so the CRTC has an obligation to keep the net democratic and free from corporate meddling.”

Stayshyn has used social media on the internet as a way to empower queer people and to share information. He helped create #CanQueer — the Canadian specific queer hashtag for the national queer conversation on twitter. “As a marginalized community, it’s hard enough for our voices to be heard,” he says. “Part of my enthusiasm for the internet stems from me being queer. We can form niche communities online whereas before that was not as easy to do. This would become more difficult if there is a tiered internet with some of it limited to only the few that can afford it. Then we’ll be moving back to where we started.”

But Canada’s internet services are slipping fast when compared to broadband services offered in other countries. In the wake of the CRTC’s decision, two reports have confirmed Canada’s near-bottom ranking among industrialized countries on such measures as internet pricing, speeds, availability, and bandwidth caps. In October, a report by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society gave Canada an overall ranking of 22 out of 30 countries on the issues of affordability, accessibility and speed of the internet. This summer, an OECD report looking at price per megabyte, ranked Canada near the rock bottom among 30 industrialized countries, ahead of only Mexico and Poland.

The CRTC’s decision on net neutrality is seen by many as just the beginning of a formal phase of regulating internet access. Michael Geist, in his blog, recommends that the CRTC go beyond its current policy and “conduct regular compliance audits of ISP traffic management practices” as well as provide “financial support to consumer groups who wish to conduct their own investigations.” He also calls on the federal government to tackle the uncompetitive structure of the telecom industry, and “give priority to increased competition in the Canadian internet marketplace.”

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