Independent films may have trouble reaching their audience and people with disabilities will suffer if internet service providers are allowed to keep slowing down certain internet applications, Canada's internet regulator heard Wednesday.
"If allowed to take root, such practices may choke off the only distribution method that currently allows independent producers to directly reach their audience" without having to through gatekeepers such as broadcasting companies, said John Barrack, national executive vice-president and counsel for the Canadian Film and Television Production Association (CFTPA).
It was one of three film industry groups that testified before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission Wednesday, along with the Council of Canadians with Disabilities and the internet service provider MTS Allstream.
'It's like playing technological whack-a-mole.' — Brad Fox, filmmaker
Currently, some internet service providers such as Bell and Rogers selectively throttle or slow down peer-to-peer (P2P) file transfers that are often used to download large files such as movies. They say that is needed to manage traffic and relieve congestion on the internet.
The CRTC is holding hearings from July 6 to 13 to determine whether such practices are acceptable and what guidelines internet service providers should follow when managing internet traffic.
Those guidelines will affect the livelihoods of artists across the country, argued CFTPA, which testified before the CRTC during the third day of hearings in Gatineau, Que., along with the Independent Film and Television Alliance (IFTA) and the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists.
"Revenues from downloading or streaming digital content may soon become the primary, and in many cases, the only way for independent producers to finance, produce and distribute content," Susan Cleary, vice-president and general counsel of the IFTA, told the commission.
Brad Fox, an independent film producer who has distributed some of his films using the peer-to-peer file-sharing protocol BitTorrent, urged the CRTC to adopt a "clear, straightforward, bright-line rule" that would ban traffic management that targets particular applications or protocols except where it has been explicitly justified.
P2P distribution cheaper: filmmaker
The group alleged that throttling P2P discriminates against many independent producers who may not have the means to pay for bandwidth to distribute films themselves or negotiate contracts with major distributors.
That is, a high-budget, two-hour, high-definition drama distributed through iTunes won't be throttled and therefore will get "priority carriage" compared with a low-resolution, independent documentary distributed via BitTorrent, the group argued.
P2P file transfers are a cheaper distribution method for producers because they allow anyone who has a copy of the film to help redistribute it, Fox told CBC News in an interview during a break in the hearings. He chose to distribute some of his films that way because calculations showed he would lose money in other distribution methods if his audience was more than 5,000 but less than 10,000.
He added that he uses a business model where he makes money by selling merchandise such as DVDs, but allows the film itself to be downloaded for free.
Fox predicted that most future distribution platforms will have P2P characteristics due to their advantages, and he's concerned about the effect of setting a precedent by allowing ISPs to throttle BitTorrent.
"It's like playing technological whack-a-mole," he said.
P2P gets resources to deaf people
P2P file transfers are also an important resource for people with disabilities, argued representatives of the Council for Canadians with Disabilities and the ARCH Disability Law Centre Wednesday.
For example, many deaf people rely on closed captions and scene descriptions for educational and other films.
The Adaptive Technology Resource Centre at the University of Toronto encourages the public to create those and then distribute them via P2P networks, where people who are disabled can access them, said director Jutta Trevarinus, one of the experts who spoke on behalf of the advocacy groups.
But Trevarinus said she has noticed problems when using P2P distribution through Rogers and Bell internet services even at times of the day when traffic is low and the companies say they don't use traffic shaping.
Advocates for the disabled also testified they are worried about proposals that certain programs should be given priority as part of internet traffic management, as a lot of people with disabilities rely on non-standard programs and devices.
Some of those already don't seem to work well with the Bell and Rogers networks. Trevarinus said she isn't sure why the speeds on the networks seem slow when using those applications.
Gregg Vanderheiden, a researcher at the Trace Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who also testified on behalf of the advocacy groups, said more transparency about ISPs' internet traffic management would help a lot in that situation.
"Sometimes, if they tell us what they're doing, we can change our behaviours so they can keep doing it but it doesn't interfere with us," he told CBC News in an interview. "If we don't know what they're doing, we have no idea what to do to fix it."