The buzz around ‘net neutrality’ has started again. ‘Net neutrality’ is a term that became widely used and debated in the early 2000s. Simply put ‘net neutrality’ means ‘absolute non-discrimination’ against any site or content on the net. In particular, the term suggests that users should have equal access to the internet and that broadband carriers should not be allowed in any way to meddle with the information distributed on the Internet.
Recently, it was reported that the US Congress plans to introduce a ‘net neutrality law’ that will prevent broadband providers from filtering or slowing down web content for customers. While ‘net neutrality’ violations have been dealt with on a case-by-case basis, the new law would provide a consistent approach to the issue.
In light of the recent decision of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Comission[CRTC], it remains unclear whether Canada will follow suit. On November 20, 2008, the CRTC denied the Canadian Association of Internet Providers’ (CAIP) application regarding Bell Canada’s traffic shaping of its wholesale Gateway Access Service (GAS). At first sight the CRTC decision appears to be a blow to the proponents of ‘net neutrality’. Yet a closer reading of the decision shows that while net neutrality supporters may have lost a battle but still have a shot at winning the war.
The main issue for the CRTC was whether Bell’s traffic-shaping practice (which consists of slowing down the transfer rates of all peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing applications during peak periods between 4:30 p.m. and 2:00 a.m., daily) was contrary to the Telecommunications Act (the Act). The Commission concluded that, on the evidence, Bell Canada had not contravened the Act because slowing down the traffic among P2P users was the most efficient and economically viable way of dealing with congestion of the net during peak hours and because Bell’s traffic shaping did not discriminate between its wholesale and retail customers.
However, the CRTC noted that the CAIP’s application has raised concerns related to existing and emerging Internet traffic management practices that are beyond the scope of the CAIP’s application. As a result, the Commission issued a Telecom Public Notice for an official public consultation. The consultation will allow any party interested in the issue to share their views in writing or at an oral hearing. The parties could provide their perspective on the technical and economic solutions to the management of an ever-growing Internet traffic volume. The discussion could also address how carriers’ traffic practices affect consumer’s privacy, equal treatment in service delivery, or any related concerns.
On the one hand, the Telecom Public Notice could allow Canada to follow the U.S. lead and move towards a consistent net-neutrality legislation. This will prohibit providers from interfering in any way with net traffic. On the other hand, Canada may simply follow the trend set by the latest CRTC’s decision and carriers will be allowed to use traffic management practices as long as they do not contravene the Act.