NDP tries again to enforce ‘Net neutrality

The federal New Democrats are again trying to force Internet providers to treat online traffic equally, admitting that as a minority party they don’t have much of a chance of getting it passed but hope to stimulate debate and pressure the government.

Digital issues critic Charles Angus introduced a so-called ‘Net neutrality amendment to the Telecommunications Act on Friday, which says service providers “shall not engage in network management practices that favour, degrade or prioritize any content, application or service … based on its source, ownership, destination or type.”

The move comes a month before the Canadian Radio-television and telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which oversees major providers Bell Canada, Telus and Rogers Communications, starts hearings on the issue. But Angus, who represents the northern Ontario riding of Timmins-James Bay, believes Parliament should act now. “My concern with the CRTC is number one I don’t believe they have enough tools in their toolbox to adequately address this issue, and number two we have to be really clear in what should be in the Telecommunications Act regarding interference by the larger telecom providers when it comes to prioritizing content on the Internet. Amendments need to be made to clarify the ground rules.”

Earlier this year the major providers sent pre-hearing papers to the commission insisting they have the right to manage their networks to ensure subscribers aren’t being hurt by downloaders who eat up bandwidth. Others sent papers insisting traffic manipulation isn’t necessary.

For over a year Bell has been dealing with the problem by so-called throttling of users it believes are causing the trouble during off-peak hours, a move the CRTC has refused to stop. Other providers deal with it by linking their monthly charges to the amount of data subscribers can download or upload.

Angus stressed that this version of his proposed amendment includes a clarification that Internet service providers have the right to manage network traffic “in a reasonable manner” to relieve “extraordinary congestion” and to provide “reasonable security.” They could also offer protection services such as parental controls for “indecency and unwanted content.”

The bill would also amend the Telecommunications Act to say service providers could not prevent a user from attaching any device to their network that doesn’t damage or “substantially degrade” the use of the network by others. Finally, it would make providers give every user information about their access, speed, limitation and the provider’s network management practices. However, the bill doesn’t say how much detail has to be given.

The NDP action mirrors concern from U.S. Federal Trade Commission chairman Jon Leibowitz, who last month said the agency may act on ‘Net neutrality and to make sure providers meet up to promises to subscribers on service.

In this country complaints about throttling user speeds come from members of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, some of whose members buy their connectivity from Bell and resell it to their subscribers. Some subscribers complain they aren’t getting the service they were promised. Others worry ISPs will give preferential treatment to content provider partners by ensuring their Web sites or videos download faster than everyone else. This is one of the issues the CRTC will look into.

“One of the issues is that we’re moving increasingly towards vertically-integrated entertainment industries out of these telecom giants,” Angus said. He didn’t give examples, but Rogers owns television stations, radio stations, consumer magazines and professional sports teams. Telus and Bell Canada Enterprises have a satellite TV services. “Many of them are offering video on demand download, and whenever you see their offerings it says ‘faster than anything else.’ There’s an obvious temptation from corporate point of view to priorititize your own content at the expense of others,” Angus alleged.

However, some North American providers say it would be counter-productive for them to favour some content providers over others.

Angus admits the chance of a private members’ bill passing are slim. But, he said, “the issue of ‘Net neutrality is something that needs to be put on the agenda for most politicians,” said Angus. “Most politicians stay away from technical issues as much as they can.”

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