The federal New Democrats will introduce a private member's bill on Wednesday that would entrench the principle of "net neutrality" and enact rules to keep the internet free from interference by service providers, an NDP MP told a rally Tuesday in Ottawa.
Parliament Hill was beset by about 300 people impassioned by an issue not usually associated with protest marches: internet access. "Save the internet," read one angry placard. "Say no to Big Brother watching you," said another.
The New Democratic Party's Charlie Angus told the cheering crowd that the private member's bill would protect Canadian consumers from having their internet speeds "throttled" by service providers.
"You are citizens of a digital realm and you have rights," he said.
The protesters, some of whom boarded buses in the early morning hours to get to the rally, are supporters of net neutrality, a movement urging the government to enact rules that prevent large internet service providers (ISPs) from interfering with the free flow of information over the internet. "Our net not for sale," they chanted, as well as, "Whose net? Our net."
At issue in the net neutrality debate are the actions of big ISPs that have been slowing down the internet speeds of customers who use certain types of applications, such as peer-to-peer software used for file sharing.
Bell Canada Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc., Canada's two largest ISPs, as well as a few others, have for some time been engaging in a practice known as "traffic shaping" or "throttling," where speeds of certain types of internet applications are slowed at certain times of the day. The main targets have been peer-to-peer applications such as BitTorrent, which have emerged as efficient ways of transferring large files like videos.
The ISPs say they are throttling such applications because a small percentage of customers are creating network congestion through constant use, which is slowing down connection speeds for the majority.
Angus took a swipe at the Liberals, who have been largely silent on the issue of net neutrality. Industry critic Scott Brison met with Bell, Rogers and other independent ISPs weeks ago, but has still not formed a position.
"This is not a partisan issue, but we're hearing radio silence," Angus told CBCNews.ca. "Where are the Liberals?"
Mauril Bélanger, Liberal MP for Ottawa-Vanier, also addressed the crowd and agreed that control of the internet must be kept out of the hands of vested interests. He said the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) already has the power to do this with the Telecommunications Act and refused to support the NDP's bill.
"I will not say yes blindly," he told the crowd. "I can't give you a blank cheque."
Protesters at the rally said the ISPs have not only failed to prove their claims regarding the need for throttling, they also have no right to pick and choose which internet applications run faster than others.
"When did Bell deign to say what's good and what's bad?" said Gatsby Wong, 32, a computer technician who got on a bus in Toronto at 4 a.m. in order to get to the rally. "Who gave them that right?"
Protesters also said the practices are anticompetitive, since internet-based phone or video sales services run up against the ISPs' own existing business lines.
"They say they have a congestion problem, but where's the proof?" said Mark Farr, 49, a renovations worker who made the trip from Welland, Ont., to attend the rally. "They say I'm the problem, but they're the problem."
Spokespeople for Bell and Rogers did not return requests for comment.
Rally leaders urged Minister of Industry Jim Prentice and the CRTC to enact rules enshrining the rights of internet users. Net neutrality isn't just an issue for technical geeks, they said, it is vital for maintaining freedom of speech and for keeping the innovation that has resulted in the birth and growth of such revolutionary companies as Google, Amazon and eBay.
"We need to protect the internet from being hijacked by vested interests," said Phillipa Lawson, director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), at the University of Ottawa. " If market forces could solve this problem we wouldn't be here today."
Rocky Gaudrault, the rally's main organizer and chief executive officer of TekSavvy Solutions Inc., told protesters that net neutrality is comprised of three basic principles: competition, innovation and consumer rights. "I'm sorry, but none of those are for sale."
Smaller ISPs such as TekSavvy, as well as more than 50 others represented at the rally by the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP), are taking particular exception with Bell's traffic-shaping practices. Because it has a taxpayer-funded monopoly over phone-cable infrastructure in much of Canada, Bell — as well as other phone companies — is mandated by the CRTC to rent portions of its network to CAIP members so they can provide services to their own customers.
Bell in March expanded its own traffic-shaping practice to CAIP members, which prompted a complaint and a request for an emergency cease-and-desist order from the group. The move also sparked TekSavvy to organize Tuesday's rally.
The CRTC earlier this month rejected the order request but launched a public inquiry into the traffic-shaping policies of Bell and others, with a plan to make a ruling by the fall.
Speakers at the rally welcomed the CRTC's move, but also urged Prentice to take action.
"Its time to demonstrate some leadership and do the right thing," said James Clancy, president of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE).
Canada is behind the United States in dealing with net neutrality issues. In February, the U.S. regulator held a public probe into the traffic-shaping practices of Comcast Corp., the country's largest ISP. The hearing prompted Comcast to promise it would abandon traffic shaping in favour of a non-discriminatory network management system by the end of the year. Representative Ed Markey, a Democrat, also introduced a net neutrality bill to the U.S. House of Representatives in February.
"If Comcast can manage its traffic in a neutral way, why can't Bell, Rogers and Shaw?" Lawson said.
Last month, Angus called on Prentice to follow the 2006 recommendations of the Telecommunications Policy Review Panel, that included enacting legislation to stop large internet service providers from prioritizing certain types of internet traffic.
Earlier this month Prentice told the House of Commons that he was against creating rules to safeguard the internet. The minister was in Ottawa on Tuesday but did not attend the rally, according to spokesperson Deirdra McCracken. She did not reply to requests for comment.