Year in review: Bell unintentionally sparks net neutrality debate

In 2008, network neutrality went from being a serious topic of conversation in IT circles to a hot button, heavily debated issue around the country.

Last year, the issue of net neutrality made the cover of ComputerWorld Canada’s first November magazine. We discussed the potential dawn of a two-tier Internet and the idea that all online traffic is treated equally.

We didn’t know it at that time, but net neutrality was about to get primetime, mainstream coverage from news organizations across Canada.

The debate exploded onto the national scene in March, after it was revealed that Bell Canada was slowing down peer-to-peer Web activity and throttling network traffic it wholesales to smaller Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

The telecom giant said that the vast majority of Internet users are “hostages” to the five per cent who use bandwidth-hogging, file sharing applications and that the traffic shaping techniques only affect those who download content through these programs.

In response, The Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) asked the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to stop manipulating traffic to ISPs that buy from it. In April, the federal regulator agreed to look at the case.

Net neutrality is often defined as the idea that 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 reliably.

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As the months progressed, more high-profiled groups began speaking out on the issue, including The Campaign for Democratic Media (CDM), which called on the CRTC to launch a “public proceeding” examining traffic shaping practices.

But net neutrality has its share of opponents as well. In October, Montreal-based telecom consultancy SeaBoard Group said that the federal government shouldn’t give in to demands that ISPs treat all traffic the same. But the firm said that “without some form of congestion management, the Internet will become a much less useful tool.”

Unfortunately for all of these net neutrality activists, the ISPs cease and desist order against Bell’s traffic shaping techniques was shot down by the CRTC in November. The federal communications regulator ruled that Bell can continue slowing Internet traffic bought by ISPs in the name of fairness. The federal regulator did, however, promise to conduct further discussions on the net neutrality issue.

And more potentially bad news for net neutrality activists arose earlier this month, after a Wall Street Journal report suggested both Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have abandoned their support for net neutrality. The article indicated that Google is trying to negotiate with broadband providers for an Internet fast lane for its content. The story also highlights Microsoft’s quiet withdrawal from a net neutrality coalition formed two years ago.

In wake of the story, both Google and Microsoft denied the claims and reaffirmed their support for net neutrality principles.

In the end, what the Bell case actually accomplished for net neutrality supporters is increased exposure and the start of an actual debate – especially from the federal government.

In 2007, The Green Party of Canada became the first major political party to address net neutrality in its policy platform. The announcement drew little fanfare as the debate was still very much under the radar at the time.

But this year, other parties such as the NDP have gone even further and urged the federal government to amend the Telecommunications Act to protect the principles of net neutrality.

During a House of Commons debate on net neutrality earlier this year, then-Industry Minister Jim Prentice said that the Internet is not publicly regulated and is not in favour of doing so in the future. This prompted Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus to send an open letter to Prentice on how Canada could better adopt legislation addressing net neutrality issues.

The debate was stalled when Prime Minister Stephen Harper called an early election, and has yet to be dealt with.

Whether the issue will come up again in 2009 remains to be seen, but net neutrality is probably one of the last issues in mind for Ottawa MPs right now.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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