The End of Freedom for Canada’s Internet?

The final frontier of free speech is under fire.

Companies like Bell and Telus want to turn the internet’s open highways of information sharing into embargoed toll roads.

These corporate fundamentalists currently hold the reigns of telecommunications power in Canada.

They’re barely restrained by some weak federal regulations and they want to be untied from that legislative post so they can run wild in the marketplace.

While these powers-that-be own the green pastures of the internet, information currently roams free there, grazing peacefully.

If government lets industry out of the barn they’d probably grab their lassoes and stampede all over us consumers like a bunch of cowboys drunk on moonshine.

They’d round up the info-cattle and stick ’em in huge corrals that we’d have to pay to visit just to get a few drops of milk.

This issue of information freedom is called “net neutrality” and many Canadian companies have already shown that they can’t be trusted with the matter. Unfortunately, the Conservative government seems willing to set them at it all the same.

As Canadians who believe in the right to access and publish information freely, we must speak up for net neutrality. We need to convince the Federal government to tighten industry regulations and let information continue to roam free on the range.

In a recent Canadian Press article by Lee-Anne Goodman a Bell spokesperson is quoted as saying Bell believes “network diversity/neutrality … should be determined by market forces, not regulation.”

That free market perspective, however, is difficult to reconcile with the fact that Canada’s telecommunications industry enjoys very minimal competition. Too few Canadian companies have two much power over the nation’s internet. The only recourse is to have government legislate controls to protect the public interest

The need for legislation is reinforced by the fact that many of the corporations that control the internet are also media powerhouses. Bell, for example, is a part of a conglomerate of media outlets which includes the Globe and Mail and CTV.

In that light it somehow doesn’t seem likely that Bell would treat content from CTV and CBC equally were they to control the medium that delivers the news.

This situation is often called a “two tier” internet. Bell wouldn’t necessarily cut off access to CBC’s web site, but they would likely make CTV’s load much faster. Smaller web sites, such as personal blogs and community newspapers would likely suffer even worse fates.

Currently the internet treats all information equally. There is no intelligence built into the system because there’s no need for any: in the eyes of the internet, all web sites are equal. Were corporations like Bell to control the internet things would certainly be different. Large corporations have shareholders to please. The internet would become another tool they would use to feed their bottom lines.

Advertiser interests would take precedence. For example, Bell might strike a deal with Google to ensure Canadian access to Yahoo! becomes much more cumbersome and difficult. Anyone who couldn’t afford to travel in the fast lane of Bell’s internet highway would be forced onto the slow backcountry roads.

This may sound a bit farfetched, but Canadian ISPs have already demonstrated that they are prepared to engage in this form of censorship.

Last year Telus cut off access to its union’s web site during a labour dispute. Rogers limits access to legitimate file sharing networks. Even in the Yukon, WHTV completely blocks access to peer-to-peer services.

Despite this, the current federal government isn’t showing much support for net neutrality. Conservative Industry Minister Maxime Bernier has already rocked the telecommunications industry once by overriding a CRTC decision to regulate internet-based telephony.

He seems intent on developing a trend of blind support for the free market. Bernier has indicated that he will likely disregard the recommendations from a recent government review of federal telecommunications policy. The report suggests an emphasis be placed on the rights of Canadians to access the internet content of their choice. In other words, the report recommends adopting the principles of net neutrality as government policy.

A US-based web site, savetheinternet.com, refers to net neutrality as the “First Amendment of the Internet.” We need to speak up and communicate its value to our government. If the corporate elite manage to succeed in their quest to attain control it will simply become yet another medium that has succumbed to their commercially-driven interests and we will all suffer the consequences – and expenses – of a discriminatory information regime.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, November 24, 2006.

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