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The CRTC is expected to rule on whether the internet in Canada should be kept neutral, and thus free from interference by ISPs, next year. ((Associated Press))

By Peter Nowak

The federal standing committee on Canadian heritage has urged the CRTC to curb interference in internet traffic by service providers such as Bell Canada and Rogers Communications, particularly in the case of the CBC.

Canadian service providers, including Bell and Rogers, have admitted to "bandwidth shaping," or giving priority to certain types of internet traffic over others.

This prioritization has given rise to fears that ISPs will begin charging content providers differently, so that a large, well-resourced corporation will have its website load faster than that of an independent blogger, for example.

The heritage committee, in a larger report released on Thursday that recommends an annual funding increase for the CBC to $1.35 billion a year from the current $1.1 billion, has come down in favour of net neutrality, a principle that holds all users of the internet should be treated equally.

Maintaining a level internet playing field is vital to the CBC's online operations, since the CBC does not have the size benefit of private media companies that own both content and broadband distribution networks, the committee said. An ISP that also sells customers television services could favour its own offerings and give them priority on the internet. 

"If the internet evolves into a multi-tiered network, where content providers pay for different levels of service, the possible degradation of its content and services, or the requirement to pay additional fees for their online delivery, would put the Corporation at a significant competitive disadvantage and undermine its ability to meet its mandated goals," the report said.

The committee cited ISPs' targeting of the British Broadcasting Corporation last year as an example.

The BBC in August launched its iPlayer, which allowed viewers to catch up on television programs they may have missed by watching them on the BBC website. British ISPs called on the BBC to pay for the extra traffic its video service would generate, or they would limit the amount of bandwidth the broadcaster received. The issue has not yet been resolved.

The report urged the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to "protect the neutrality of carriage of Canadian public broadcasting content" as part of its New Media Project Initiative, a review of whether and how the CRTC should regulate new media. It is expected to make its report next year.

"The committee agrees that non-discriminatory access by Canadians to CBC/Radio-Canada online content and services is necessary to the fulfillment of the role of our national public broadcaster in the digital age," the report said.

CRTC would have to apply rules evenly: expert

A CBC spokesperson was unable to say what the corporation's specific position on the matter is.

Internet experts said it would be difficult for the CRTC to enforce net neutrality just for the CBC. The regulator would have to apply any ruling evenly so that all broadcasters would be protected.

"The committee recognizes that the public broadcaster could be affected by a two-tiered internet," said University of Ottawa internet law professor Michael Geist. "The recommendations would have much broader applications."

The committee's recommendation comes as the net neutrality debate heats up. The U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month introduced a bill to enshrine net neutrality, while the U.S. Federal Communications Commission this week held hearings on the internet policies of Comcast, the largest U.S. cable company, which has admitted it slows down traffic over the BitTorrent file-sharing protocol.

While BitTorrent is the protocol of choice for internet users who pirate copyrighted material, it is also increasingly being used by legitimate companies, and some have complained to the FCC that Comcast's interference is hurting their business.