Canadians show support for net neutrality

Although two-third of Canadians are unfamiliar with the idea of network neutrality, almost 67 per cent would agree with the principle after it is explained, according to a recent eBay Canada survey.

The study also found that 76 per cent of Canadians – which include 70 per cent Conservative, 79 per cent Liberal and 86 per cent NDP supporters – want the federal government to pass laws to confirm the rights of online users to access publicity available Internet applications and the content of their choice. The report includes a wide variety of figures suggesting most Canadians support government intervention in regards to net neutrality.

“The survey shows that the principle makes sense for people,” Pippa Lawson, executive director at the University of Ottawa’s Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, said. “Now we need to make sure that it’s clearly set out in our laws and Canadians will be very determined for that to happen if we see more incidents of non-neutral and discriminatory behaviour by ISPs.”

Net neutrality is often defined as the idea ISPs should not be able to favour some types of data over others; such as ISPs allowing certain Web sites and content providers to pay for a higher priority on their data. This would guarantee “quality of service” and in affect allow the content to be accessed faster and more reliable.

In Canada, the Telecommunications Act has two specific provisions that can be related to net neutrality. It states that no Canadian carrier can unjustly discriminate or give an undue or unreasonable preference to users, except with the permission of the CRTC. But neutrality proponents such as Lawson have said that these rules are still open to interpretation because they have not been expressed written with net neutrality in mind. Canada’s most famous example of non-neutrality occurred in 2005 during the Telus labour dispute. Telus restricted access for its customers to a pro-union site by blocking the server on which it was hosted. Researchers later found that Telus’s actions resulted in hundreds of additional and unrelated sites to be blocked for its subscribers.

“We’re going to see a growing awareness of this issue in Canada as well as an increasing amount of concern if ISPs continue down this path,” Michael Geist, research chair of Internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, said. “When you talk to most Canadian Internet users and they learn about the prospect of a two-tier Internet system where ISPs can discriminate between different types of content and applications, they simply think that it’s wrong.”

But according Mark Goldberg, head of Thornhill, Ont.-based telecommunications consulting firm Mark H. Goldberg & Associates, net neutrality supporters shouldn’t be so quick to take the survey results at face value. He said that most of these studies look at net neutrality on a superficial level. When Canadians are provided with more information about “non-neutral” practices, Goldberg said, they may find them useful and practical.

“Let’s say my bank, which I do stock trades with, is concerned because I use cable Internet and they know that next door the kids might be chewing up a lot of the bandwidth in my neighbourhood,” Goldberg said. “The bank may want to provide me with a virtual private network into my house in order for me to have guaranteed access to service to the stock trading application. They aren’t worried about my Web browsing or my movie downloading, they just want to make sure that when I execute the stock trade that it goes through.”

Many proponents of net neutrality say that smaller online content and application providers will be adversely affected without net neutrality protections. However, Goldberg doesn’t believe this is the case.

“In fact, what happens is that net neutrality legislation will create an advantage for large companies, because they already mirror their content at sites all around the world,” Goldberg said. “These Internet application companies like Google or eBay don’t have all their content coming from one bunker filled with giant servers. They geographically locate them all over the place.”

Goldberg said these companies have recognized that it does make a difference to remove as many layers as possible and they seem to be saying that they don’t want other people to be able to pay for the advantages that they can afford by their own physical presence.

“They’re buying Internet access pipes in all sorts of data centres around the world and essentially buying themselves preferred quality of service,” Goldberg said. “So, why wouldn’t we allow ISPs to offer a virtual version of physical presence?”

Lawson said that while Goldberg is correct that larger companies already have a decided advantage, she said continuing to stack the deck is not the answer.

“What we’re talking about here is adding on a whole new layer which creates a system that legitimizes this kind of disparity and I don’t think we should,” Lawson said. “He’s wrong that it would make things worse as I don’t see it having a counter effect.”

As for why the study and public perception suggests so many Canadians were unaware of the net neutrality concept, Geist said that the lack of legislative debate as well as the ISPs themselves has been contributing factors.

“We haven’t seen the legislative emphasis that has existed in the U.S., where their congress and public interest groups have been more active on the issue,” Geist said. “Also, Canadian ISPs have done their best to downplay and minimize the issue so that many customers may be experiencing the effects of net neutrality related issues, but are unaware that it’s happening.”

Geist cited the traffic shaping practices at Rogers Communications, where the ISP limits the amount of bandwidth available for certain applications such as peer-to-peer and torrent clients.

“Because we don’t have a robust competitive environment from an Internet provider perspective, it means the majority of Canadians have either the choice of a teleco or a cableco for their high speed access needs,” Geist said. “This means Canadians don’t have much of an alternative when they face things like traffic shaping or content blocking, because their isn’t much choice in ISPs.”

Goldberg said that almost everyone would agree that phone and cable companies should be trying to prevent the spread of viruses. They almost all do this, he said, using traffic shaping measures.

“I don’t think traffic shaping is noticeable to the average user and in fact, I would argue that the absence of traffic shaping would be more noticeable by the average user,” Goldberg said. “It’s also known as quality of service, and I think most people would agree that ISPs should be taking positive actions to protect their networks.”

The eBay Canada study sampled 1,500 adult Canadians earlier this June. eBay Canada was unavailable for comment at the press time.

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