The fight in the United States by major telecom companies to control web content has arrived in Canada with little fanfare— and could dramatically change the nature of the internet.
It's being waged over something called net neutrality, dubbed the First Amendment of the internet in the United States. Net neutrality aims to ensure the public can view the smallest blogs just as easily as the largest corporate websites.
"Right now, the internet is almost a perfect, universal democracy," says Pippa Lawson, the executive director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Law Clinic.
"The smallest bloggers can be accessed as easily and as quickly as the websites of major corporations."
Leave it to market forces, Canadian companies urge
But Lawson said that could change drastically if Canadian telecommunications companies like Bell, Telus and Rogers follow the lead of their American counterparts, including Verizon and AT&T.
'Our position on network diversity/neutrality is that it should be determined by market forces, not regulation.' -Jacqueline Michelis ofBell Canada
The U.S. telecom companies were successful in the summer in persuading Congress to gutthe net neutrality law, whichspecified that no provider of physical infrastructure— from roads to railways to electrical or telephone companies— could have any say over the content and services flowing over their networks. U.S. legislators arecurrently reviewing their decision to scrap the law.
Meanwhile, Canadian companies have already argued in various forums that net neutrality legislation isn't necessary.
"Our position on network diversity/neutrality is that it should be determined by market forces, not regulation," Jacqueline Michelis, a spokeswoman for Bell Canada, said in a recent e-mail to the Canadian Press.
Must have law to avoid corporate biases: expert
That viewpoint is making those who advocate for a free and open internet nervous.
"Let's say you're Rogers and you're trying to sell Major League Baseball stuff so the Toronto Blue Jays content loads faster than anyone else's, or you're Bell Globemedia, so you ensure that CTV content loads far faster than the CBC's does," said Michael Geist, a professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in internet law.
Rogers own the Jays and Bell Globemedia owns CTV.
'There's clear incentive there for those who have the economic interests to discriminate. That's why it's necessary to ensure that there's a level playing field and you have to do that legislatively.' -Michael Geist, specialist in internet law
"There's clear incentive there for those who have the economic interests to discriminate. That's why it's necessary to ensure that there's a level playing field and you have to do that legislatively."
Lawson said Canadian companies want exactly what American companies want— to control the web and make a lot of money doing so.
"There's a big push in Canada right now to allow those sorts of discriminatory practices," Lawson said.
"The companies that own the pipes of the internet— the telecom companies— haven't liked sitting back and watching big content providers like Google and Yahoo make billions of dollars. They want a piece of the pie, and they want to be able to favour their own content or the content of the corporations that would pay them big money."
Canadian legislation underreview
Industry Minister Maxime Bernier is currently poring over a report by the federally appointed Telecommunications Policy Review Panel that recommends changes to the Telecommunications Act, including replacing a clause on "unjust discrimination" that does little to either uphold the principles of net neutrality or prevent it from being violated.
What telecom companies most want is to promote their own content, said Ben Scott of the U.S. media watchdog Free Press and SavetheInternet.com.
'Essentially they set themselves up as gatekeepers and they say: "Well, we own the wires â¦ and if you have the money, you can pay us to make your websites go much faster."' -Ben Scott of the U.S. media watchdog Free Press
"If I'm Telus and I've just created my own Telus iTunes and I decide I want my Telus iTunes to work better than Apple's, well, too bad for Apple," Scott said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.
"Essentially they set themselves up as gatekeepers and they say: 'Well, we own the wires and instead of treating all bits alike in a non-discriminatory fashion, we're going to set up special deals and if you have the money, you can pay us to make your websites go much faster. And you can pay us to set up an exclusive deal where your website goes very fast and your competitor's doesn't.'"
Google, Yahoo, Microsoft want law
That's something big content providers like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are dead set against, arguing it will destroy the free and open nature of the internet and also create a tiered, dollar-driven net that favours the wealthiest corporations over everyone else.
'Telephone companies cannot tell consumers who they can call; network operators should not dictate what people can do online.' -Google vice-president Vint Cerf
"Telephone companies cannot tell consumers who they can call; network operators should not dictate what people can do online," Google vice-president Vint Cerf said in 2005.
Scott gave another example, pointing out that electrical companies can not differentiate between different brands ofCD players: they all have equal access tothe electricity when plugged in.
"The internet has always worked that way. In the U.S., it always worked that way because we had a law that said it had to work that way, and they took away that law."
Scott said the big U.S. telecom companies are on their best behaviour as they await a final green light from the U.S. legislators reviewing the decision to scrap the net neutrality law.
Web freedom 'seriously in jeopardy'
Some might wonder why consumers unhappy with the behaviour of their ISPs couldn't simply switch companies. But as Scott pointed out, it's a lot more difficult to switch over to Rogers, say, from Bell Sympatico than it is to switch search engines — particularly in regions where only one or two ISPs are in play. That's a situation that exists in many parts of North America.
"If Google were to attempt to give preferential treatment to corporate clients, you could just switch to a different search engine in two seconds," he said. "Google and Yahoo wouldn't dare start doing that, because they know you'd drop them like a hot rock. It's a real hassle and a lot tougher to switch service providers than it is to switch search engines."
For Scott, the end of net neutrality could very well sound the death knell for the heady days of the internet as a wide-open information frontier— and what happens in the United States, he said, will most certainly happen in Canada.
"The beauty of the internet is that you have a completely unfettered communications and commerce system," he said. "There are no barriers to entry and nobody to ask permission— you just put up a website and if you've got a good idea, people will come and read your stuff and buy your stuff and you will be successful.
"That is seriously in jeopardy if these companies succeed."