Obama could impact Canadian net neutrality laws

Newly appointed U.S. President Barack Obama could be the most influential player in Canada’s net neutrality debate, according to anti-censorship supporters.

The Obama administration has only begun the difficult task of turning around the global economy and improving America’s international reputation, but the new president might also be laying the ground work on another campaign promise – the introduction of net neutrality legislation.

It is widely expected that Obama will soon nominate his technology adviser, Julius Genachowski, as the next head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Genachowski is a supporter of net neutrality principles and affordable broadband access.

Another positive development for neutrality supporters occurred last Thursday, when the Energy and Commerce Committee attached net neutrality and open access mandates to almost US$3 billion in grants and loans for new network build-outs to rural and underserved areas.

Both of these moves have been welcomed by neutrality supporters such as Maggie James, the editor of Ottawa-based TECHLifePost.com.

“Hopefully, if the right kind of legislation comes into place in the U.S., we will take our cue from them,” she said.

James’ Web site is a founding partner of the Hands Off My Net campaign against online censorship initiative, officially launched this week.

“There’s a lot of pressure on our politicians to act from special interest groups who want certain things banned on the Internet,” she said. “What we fear is that as soon as some kind of filtering is put in place, these groups will line up asking for even more items to be banned.”

Once the policies are in place, James said, it will be difficult to get them taken out.

“No one will argue with controlling child pornography, but once the mechanism is in place to mandatorily filter the Internet, people will line up to grind their own axes,” she added. Political and religious groups will lobby to ban the views of other groups, James said, significantly curtailing freedom of speech.

With the Hands Off My Internet campaign, James is asking users in favour of an unfiltered and uncensored Internet to sign its online petition calling on all governments around the world to defend their citizens’ right to a free Internet and entrench it into law.

The petition, which opposes government-imposed online filtering, is open to Internet users in all countries.

As for the Obama factor, at least one technology observer from south of the border warns net neutrality supporters to remain a bit more cautious.

Los Angeles-based technology consultant Lauren Weinstein, founder of People for Internet Responsibility (PFIR), does expect the new administration to be an improvement over the Bush regime in regards to technology-related legislation. However, with net neutrality remaining such a broad issue, it will be difficult to determine what Obama’s campaign promise actually meant.

“To me, net neutrality is all about making sure that customers, services and applications all have fair and competitive access to Internet resources and aren’t restricted in unreasonable ways,” he said.

“From a political standpoint, however, it’s very difficult to go wrong promoting censorship.”

Weinstein said that the censorship activists are basically fighting a war on drugs: wasting lots of time and effort in stopping a flow of information that will always exist.

“We’re starting to head down that road of trying to put major resources, in terms of political capital and technological restructuring of the Internet, and the end result is not going to be a success by the definition of the people that want to do this,” he said. “Just like you can’t stop the flow of drugs, you can’t stop the flow of information.”

“You can’t effectively censor the Internet, it’s just a technological fact,” Weinstein added.

And while applauding the efforts of organizations like Hands Off My Internet, Weinstein doubted the organization – or any similar one, for that matter – would have much of an impact in changing policy.

Whether the site and its petition will have any impact remains to be seen, but as long as online censorship continues to be debated by politicians around the globe, James will be motivated to move forward.

One such example is the Australia government’s attempt to make it mandatory for ISPs to filter Internet of all inappropriate, offensive and illegal content, she said. The plan, sometimes referred to as the “Clean Feed” act, has been spearheaded by the country’s telecom minister and will block approximately 10,000 Web sites banned by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

“This is just part of a growing number of stories that show interest among politicians to filter online content,” she said. “It’s an increasingly problem and while we’re much better off in Canada, there have been rumblings here as well.”

James said Hands Off My Internet will attempt to present copies of its petition to the Australian High Commission in the near future.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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