Bell Canada Inc. is facing another challenge to its internet throttling practices as Quebec's consumer watchdog, L'Union des consommateurs, has filed a class-action lawsuit against the company.
The suit, filed Thursday in Quebec Superior Court on behalf of Montreal resident Myrna Raphael, seeks certification for all subscribers in the province. The lawsuit alleges that by deliberately slowing internet speeds, Bell has misrepresented its service and raised concerns over privacy.
The consumer watchdog is seeking the return of 80 per cent of the internet subscription price, which it says is equal to the reduction in speed, as well as $600 per subscriber to compensate for false advertising and $1,500 for privacy rights violation.
The watchdog said in a release that Raphael signed a three-year contract with Bell in 2006 on the basis that she would receive a connection with "always-on constant high speed, without frustrating interruptions during peak hours of the day."
Montreal-based Bell has admitted it is using so-called deep packet inspection, or DPI, technology to slow down certain uses of the internet — primarily peer-to-peer applications such as BitTorrent — during peak periods. The company says it needs to do so because a small percentage of heavy peer-to-peer users are causing congestion on its network, which could slow overall speeds for a large number of customers.
Bell spokesman Mark Langton said the company does not comment on cases before the courts.
Bell is not the only internet service provider to throttle customers speeds, as Toronto-based Rogers Communications Inc. has acknowledged doing so. A spokesman for Bell's main competitor in Quebec, Montreal-based cable provider Vidéotron Ltée, said it does not throttle its customers.
The union, however, also launched a class-action lawsuit against Vidéotron last year for forcing download limits on internet customers in the middle of their contracts. The company said it was not violating the terms of those contracts as it gave customers two months warning.
About 300 angry internet users assembled on Parliament Hill last week to protest against Bell's and Rogers' actions. The NDP also last week introduced a private member's bill in the House of Commons designed to limit how much control internet service providers have over the internet.
Submissions filed with CRTC
The suit was followed Thursday night by submissions to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission by Bell and the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, which represents 55 smaller ISPs that rent portions of the company's network. The parties were responding to an inquiry into Bell's traffic-shaping practices by the CRTC, which sprouted from a complaint filed in April by CAIP.
In its filing, Bell said the traffic shaping, which it began applying to its own Sympatico customers in November and then to its wholesale CAIP customers in March, was necessary in order to prevent the slow-down of speeds for about 700,000 customers. Bell's head of regulatory affairs, Mirko Bibic, told CBCNews.ca on Friday that throttling is just one of the means in which the company is addressing its congestion problem. Pricing plans based on usage as well as continued investment are the other solutions, he said, although "building alone is not going to solve the problem."
CAIP in its submission accused Bell of lying to the CRTC by saying its throttling was only being used on peer-to-peer applications. The group said Bell has admitted to two independent ISPs, Sentex and Execulink, that its DPI technology was having an impact on virtual private network (VPN) connections, which was affecting individuals' ability to work from home. The group also said DPI was affecting Voice over Internet Protocol telephones.
Langton said Bell has investigated several cases where traffic shaping was suspected of affecting internet uses other than peer-to-peer, but found that it was not the issue.
"Our invitation to ISPs to tell us about any such problems so we can investigate remains open," he said.
The CRTC has given interested parties until June 12 to make their submissions on the throttling issue. Bell will then have until June 19 to reply to those submissions, while CAIP will have until June 26. The CRTC said it will then make a ruling by September.
Aside from the Quebec consumers' lawsuit and the CRTC probe, Bell also has to deal with a complaint filed with the federal privacy commissioner by the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, a University of Ottawa legal clinic specializing in internet and other technology-related law. In its complaint filed in May, the clinic said Bell's DPI was invading users' privacy by reading what sort of data — known as packets — they were transmitting.
Bibic on Friday disputed the charge and said the company's DPI only identified what form of traffic a customer was transmitting, and it did not delve into the actual data being sent.
"We've been quite clear all along that we don't examine the contents of what the packets contain," he said.