A coalition of more than 70 technology companies, including internet search leader Google, online retailer Amazon and voice over internet provider Skype, is calling on the CRTC to ban internet service providers from "traffic shaping," or using technology that favours some applications over others.

In a submission filed Monday to the Canada Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in advance of a July probe into the issue of internet traffic management, the Open Internet Coalition said traffic shaping network management "discourages investment in broadband networks, diminishes consumer choice, interferes with users' freedom of expression, and inhibits innovation."

"If the commission allows Canadian ISPs to apply application specific traffic management practices to legal content or applications, it would be out of step with U.S. telecommunications policy and would disadvantage Canadian consumers and application providers," wrote the Open Internet Coalition.

The coalition joined a chorus of other critics, including consumer groups and privacy advocates, who are calling on the CRTC to investigate the way in which ISPs manage their networks, an issue often referred to as "net neutrality."

CRTC sought feedback

The submissions were in response to the CRTC's call for comments in its probe into the issue of internet traffic management, with hearings expected to be held on July 6 in Gatineau, Que.

The hearings were set up following complaints from the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) that Bell Canada is selectively slowing down or "throttling" internet traffic generated by peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing applications such as BitTorrent or "shaping" traffic to favour other applications over P2P in an effort to reduce network congestion.

That policy affects both Bell customers and customers of small, independent ISPs that buy network access wholesale from Bell. The CRTC, which has the power to impose conditions on the way retail internet services are offered, is looking into what types of traffic management practices are used by ISPs and whether they violate the Telecommunications Act.

Monday was the last day the CRTC was accepting comments. A CRTC spokesperson said the commission received 31 electronic submissions and 285 comments from interested parties, but those numbers do not take into account submissions that may have been submitted by fax or mail.

Potentially invasive practice 

A number of groups that made submissions singled out deep packet inspection technologies used to monitor and direct internet traffic as both unnecessary and potentially invasive to consumers.

Deep packet inspection (DPI) is a form of computer network packet filing originally used to scan for spam or viruses, but one that also allows the inspection of content, and can be used to allow some applications to be given greater priority than others. In its submission to the CRTC, Bell said it uses the technology to redistribute P2P file-sharing traffic to off-peak periods, but does not block the file sharing outright nor does it block other kinds of applications.

It also said its bandwidth management practices are one of three ways it manages its network. The company said it also invests in its broadband infrastructure to expand its network capability and has moved away from "unlimited" pricing plans and toward more usage-based pricing.

The Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, acting on behalf of the Campaign for Democratic Media, said in its submission that throttling the download or upload speed of particular applications should not be permitted, but said traffic management might be justifiable as a last resort if ISPs could prove their networks were congested. It said such congestion could only be established, however, by transparent and widely accepted tests.

What constitutes 'congestion?'

That's not possible, said CAIP in its submission, since with the exception of Rogers and Telus, all of the main telecommunications carriers have filed some of their information regarding congestion in confidence, making it impossible for other parties to comment meaningfully on their definitions of what constitutes "congestion."

Privacy Commissioner of Canada Jennifer Stoddart also weighed in on the issue, saying that since DPI technology is capable of allowing inspection of information content sent from end user to end user, it potentially allows third parties to draw inferences about users' personal lives, interests and activities, whether or not that is the intent.

She said consumer privacy needs to be factored in when considering the use of the technology, and also added that thus far ISPs have done a poor job of communicating their practices.

"There is concern that the implementation of DPI for internet traffic management has been done in a manner that is less than transparent and potentially inconsistent with an individual's/consumer's expectations," she wrote.