A telephone network owner can’t block the line if they don’t like what you’re about to say before placing a call across an old copper wire.
This principle, called common carriage, is enshrined in telephone services as well as in railroads, airlines and, in countries such as Canada, the internet. It’s the backbone of net neutrality: the idea that all content should be equally treated when it comes to transmission speeds or access.
Canada’s net neutrality regulations are among the world’s strongest and the federal government has said it plans to keep them that way. But that’s about to get harder, experts say, since the United States is preparing to rescind the internet’s common carrier status down south.
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is preparing to vote next week on a proposal to kill its net neutrality regulations that were first introduced in 2015.
Millions of citizens and the Democratic party oppose the proposal, arguing it could give even more power to telecom giants to create premium fast lanes and stifle innovation among smaller players that can’t afford to shift out of the slow lane.
Providers could also make it easier to access their content instead of their competitors. For example, Comcast Corp. could favour its NBC subsidiary, or a combined AT&T Inc.-Time Warner Inc. could push HBO if their merger is approved.
Thousands of people protested on Thursday outside hundreds of stores owned by Verizon Wireless, whose parent company is pushing to end net neutrality, but it may have been for naught.
FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon and appointee of President Donald Trump, has remained steadfast in his opposition to net neutrality and said the internet thrived without common carrier status from 1996 to 2015.
Removing the 18-month-old regulations implemented by the Obama administration will not destroy the internet, he said, despite the “wild accusations, fearmongering and hysteria.”
Pai said the existing regulations curtail investment by forcing providers spend on compliance instead of infrastructure upgrades, estimating investment has been dampened by a few billion dollars (investment is down, but the reasons behind the dip are disputed).
He also argues the “mother-may-I approach” chilled innovation due to vague wording on what conduct is acceptable, which stops companies from trying new ideas in an effort to avoid possible penalties.
Pai is likely to get his way, as the committee has three Republican and two Democratic commissioners. The Democrats are trying to delay the vote scheduled for Dec. 14, because millions of comments submitted in an online consultation appear to be fake or made with stolen identities.
But barring a last-minute delay, the internet landscape in the U.S. could look much different on Thursday and experts said it will undoubtedly affect Canada given the internet’s borderless nature.
For one thing, it could also give Canada’s telecoms fodder for axing similar regulations north of the border, although the Liberal government does not seem open to nixing net neutrality anytime soon.
Canada is “very firm about upholding these values no matter what other jurisdictions decide,” said Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains. “This is a critical issue of our time, like freedom of the press and freedom of expression centuries ago. I firmly support the basic principles of the internet around openness, fairness and freedom.”
The government, he added, will look for ways to strengthen net neutrality provisions when it revamps the broadcasting and telecommunications acts and will commit to being an international leader in advocating for an open internet.
“I believe there should be no gatekeepers deciding which sites you get access to based on either different pricing regimes or speeds,” he said, adding an open internet is critical to democracy. “I can tell you right now that while other jurisdictions are focusing on building walls, we’re focused on opening doors and building bridges.”
Canada already strengthened its net neutrality regulations earlier this year when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission banned internet providers from exempting certain content from data caps.
Telus Corp. and BCE Inc. opposed the decision, while Rogers Communications Inc. supported it, stating internet providers shouldn’t act as gatekeepers.
One reason Canada is more attached than the U.S. to the principle of net neutrality is that it has treated the internet under the telecommunications act from day one, whereas the U.S. has treated it as an information provider, said Konrad von Finckenstein, CRTC chairman from 2007 to 2012.
Internet traffic can be restrained to manage congestion and protect network integrity, he said, but it’s not up to internet providers to determine what content can be accessed at what speeds. This is especially true in Canada where major telecoms such as Rogers and Bell have long owned content unlike the U.S. where it is relatively new for players to own both the pipes and the content.
“We saw it as a universal platform,” von Finckenstein said. “If there’s any gatekeeping, it shouldn’t be done by people with a self-interest.”
But the FCC’s vote will “very much influence” the Canadian market since there is no border when it comes to the internet, he said. “There will be a huge pressure to do the same thing in Canada.”
After all, regulators can and do change their minds, Von Finckenstein said, pointing to the CRTC’s policy on usage-based bills.
At first, the CRTC treated the internet like electricity and decided providers could charge more for higher use. But the correct analogy is a pipeline: if it’s full, another must be built. He said the CRTC abandoned the original idea in 2011 after public backlash and another hearing.
But even if Canadian rules stay the same, Thomas Kunz, a systems and computer engineering professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, said killing net neutrality in the U.S. could hurt web users in this country since many of the services they use are based in the U.S. and internet traffic often traverses the border to deliver content from servers.
“It might be that traffic doesn’t get shaped in Canada itself,” he said. “If it’s slow or fast somewhere else, you’ll benefit from that.”
Fees could also go up if telecoms are successful in getting, say, Netflix to pay more for a fast lane, Kunz said.
Critically, it could make it harder for innovators if telecoms incent customers to use their own products.
“Telcos aren’t the most innovative … they haven’t been able to successfully fight back against Facebook messenger or WhatsApp,” he said, noting how the free apps beat short message service (SMS) offerings and trounced texting as popular means of communication.
The potential to limit innovation has a made-in-Canada example, said Byron Holland, president of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority.
He said Netflix’s growth may have been stunted without net neutrality since Rogers and Shaw Communications Inc. could have made it more difficult to access it in favour of Shomi, the inferior streaming service they co-owned. Instead, Shomi was shuttered in 2016.
“If you own content, but there’s a better one out there, all you have to do is slow it down a bit,” Holland said.
Such preferential treatment could have consequences in industries such as financial services or online stock trading.
“All it takes is slowing a transaction down … literally seconds, all of a sudden, gives great preference to one platform versus another,” he said. “The sky’s the limit in terms of how incumbents, large operators, major players can then tweak the system to limit competition.”
It costs billions to build networks and providers rightly charge for access, Holland said, but there’s a difference between paying a network owner for access and paying a gatekeeper to select content.
The internet began with walled gardens set up by providers such as AOL that limited who could participate and what content was available.
“Do we want to go to a world like that?” Holland said. “Just because we have the internet today doesn’t mean we’ll get to enjoy that internet tomorrow. Net neutrality is one of the key foundational pillars of the internet as we know it.”