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Google says the internet is too important to allow Bell or other service providers to act as a 'gatekeeper.' ((Jens Meyer/Associated Press))

Google Inc. says Bell Canada Inc. is breaking Canadian telecommunications law by slowing certain internet traffic, and is urging the CRTC to take action against the company.

"Bell claims its throttling of peer-to-peer applications is a reasonable form of network management. Google respectfully disagrees. Network management does not include Canadian carriers’ blocking or degrading lawful applications that consumers wish to use," the company wrote in a 15-page submission to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which was made public over the weekend.

"From consumer, competition and innovation perspectives, throttling applications that consumers choose is inconsistent with a content and application-neutral internet, and a violation of Canadian telecommunications law, which forbids unfair discrimination and undue or unreasonable preferences and requires that regulation be technologically and competitively neutral."

Net neutrality at stake

The Mountain View, Calif.-based search engine giant made the comments as part of an investigation by the CRTC into Bell's limiting of download speeds of peer-to-peer applications such as BitTorrent. Bell first started limiting the speeds — known as throttling — of its own Sympatico internet subscribers in November, then extended the practice to its wholesale customers in March. The company said growing usage by a small number of peer-to-peer users was threatening to cause slowdowns for its overall customer base.

That move prompted a complaint with the CRTC from the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, a group of 55 small ISPs who rent portions of Bell's network, and sparked the "net neutrality" battle over who controls the internet in Canada. Aside from Google, CAIP has attracted the support of thousands of users, consumer groups and other technology firms including internet calling provider Skype. Bell, on the other hand, saw fellow large ISPs Telus Corp. and Rogers Communications Inc. come to its defence last week.

Google said that in order to keep consumer choice and innovation alive on the internet, the CRTC must force Bell — and eventually other large ISPs — to end its throttling practices.

"The internet is simply too important to allow them to act as such a gatekeeper," the company said. "Protecting end user choice is the central issue in this proceeding, but also a much larger issue. It goes to the heart of the internet and how it acts as an extraordinary platform for innovation and fair competition."

A spokesman for Bell said the company plans to respond in its next submission to the CRTC, which is due on Thursday.

Telus, which says it does not limit the speeds of its internet subscribers, in its submission argued that Bell is within its rights to change how it delivers services to its wholesale customers. The notification of network changes required by the Telecommunications Act apply only to other network carriers, a status many of CAIP's members do not have.

"Customer relations matters that involve no network interface changes do not engage the network change notification requirements, and it would be inefficient and unwieldy to create new requirements in this regard," wrote Craig McTaggart, director of broadband policy for Telus.

The company argued there is no discrimination because Bell is treating its own Sympatico and wholesale customers the same. Telus also discounted arguments made by other parties who have made submissions to the CRTC, including Skype, that the traffic-inspection technology used by Bell violates users' privacy.

McTaggart noted that the current dispute should be limited specifically to the question of whether Bell is violating its wholesale agreement terms and should not be extended to other network owners, such as Telus.

"To the extent that this dispute may raise any policy issues relating to retail internet access services, Telus would expect the commission to initiate a proceeding by way of public notice/notice of consultation before establishing new rules of general application," he wrote. "However, in Telus' view, no such proceeding is necessary."

Other internet uses not affected: Rogers

Rogers, which also slows peer-to-peer applications, disputed claims by CAIP that such throttling affects services such as voice over internet protocol (VoIP) and virtual private networks (VPN).

"This equipment, therefore, does not impact any other traffic such as VoIP, VPN and other online streaming applications because their signatures are different," wrote Ken Engelhart, senior vice-president of regulatory affairs for Rogers. "There is therefore no reason why VPN or other encrypted traffic would be affected."

Engelhart also reiterated that Rogers does not throttle the downloading of files over peer-to-peer applications — it only slows uploading. However, because the download speeds of many applications are tied to the upload speed, the downloads are effectively slowed as well, which is the fault of the application's provider.

"Of course, because some P2P applications (BitTorrent for example) restrict download speed to the maximum upload speed provided by the user, a customer’s P2P download speed can be limited by the upstream cap, but that is a result of the business decision taken by the P2P applications provider," he wrote.

Bell has also been supported by network equipment maker Cisco Systems Inc., which said the CRTC should refrain from imposing network management regulations.

Aside from Google and Skype, parties who have made CRTC submissions supporting CAIP include: the University of Western Ontario; the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic; the Union des consommateurs; Primus Telecommunications Canada Inc.; the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association; and the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, which counts network equipment maker Alcatel Lucent among its members.

The CRTC expects to rule on the CAIP-Bell dispute in September and has said a larger investigation into net neutrality principles is likely.