An update on net neutrality

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Last November, I wrote an article on net neutrality in Canada, and how a ruling in the United States could affect us. In the past two weeks, regulators have made major decisions in support of net neutrality both north and south of the border. In the U.S., Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler announced Feb. 4 that he is proposing stringent net neutrality regulations on Internet Service Providers (ISPs). In Canada, the CRTC ruled Jan. 29 that Bell Mobility and Videotron (an Eastern Canada telecommunications company) were in violation of the Telecommunications Act for giving their own content an unfair advantage on their networks.

South of the border, Wheeler announced that he is proposing classifying Internet providers under a slightly altered version of Title II of the Communications Act, which would give the FCC unprecedented regulatory oversight. Reclassification as Title II, for those who haven’t been following the evolution of this gripping debate, means treating Internet providers (kind of) like telephone companies or utilities, which ensures that they offer their services (the Internet) on a non-discriminatory basis. 

Wheeler’s proposal was widely applauded by net neutrality supporters for recommending the strongest net neutrality laws the U.S. has ever seen. On top of satisfying pretty much every demand that advocates asked for, the four-page document released by the FCC also includes a section that would apply all regulations to mobile Internet providers as well as ISPs. 

If the FCC accepts Wheeler’s proposal — the vote will take place Feb. 26th — the new regulations would ban blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. The FCC has attempted to enforce similar rules before, but lost in a legal battle with Verizon early last year, which forced them to re-evaluate the legal footing their regulations rely on. Re-classifying Internet providers as Title II will give the FCC a much stronger legal base in any future litigation.

The proposal has already faced criticism from the two Republican FCC commissioners who claim that Wheeler is misleading the American people by only releasing four pages of a 332-page document. They assert that the new regulations would allow the FCC to micromanage the Internet, jeopardize service plans such as T-Mobile’s Music Freedom program, and potentially open the door to new taxes.

In addition to the commissioners’ disapproval, the new regulations are likely going to incite a long round of legal battles with Internet providers that could last well past the end of Obama’s term. It looks like this is just the beginning of an extended fight in the U.S. for net neutrality.

Skipping north across the border, the ruling was not nearly as monumental, but that’s largely because Canada’s net neutrality laws were already pretty good. Nonetheless, the CRTC’s decision to stop mobile Internet providers’ practice of privileging their own content was another step in cementing Canada’s net neutrality regulations. 

You may recall from my last article that the CRTC was investigating a complaint which asserted that Bell Mobile, Rogers, and Videotron were giving themselves an unfair advantage by offering their mobile users access to their content for a much lower price than competitors. Rogers has removed their service and the CRTC subsequently dropped the complaint against them.

The best example of this practice is Bell’s Mobile TV service, which included 10 hours streaming on its network for $5 a month. You may be thinking that sounds fantastic but consider that streaming 10 hours of content on a service like Netflix on your phone would cost many times that because you would be charged using Bell’s standard data fees. 

By ruling in favour of regulating these services the CRTC has sent a strong message about their support of equal treatment of content. While the decision did not directly invoke the net neutrality laws passed in 2009, CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais made it clear that it has broader implications: “At its core, this decision isn’t so much about Bell or Videotron. It’s about all of us and our ability to access content equally and fairly, in an open market that favours innovation and choice.”

Bell and Videotron have until April 29 to remove the services in question. 

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