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Pressure is building on the government to regulate internet access, with a "perfect storm" of events over the past week drawing attention to the issue. ((AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian))

BY PETER NOWAK — The battle for who controls the internet in Canada has begun in earnest with a national labour union urging the CRTC to curb traffic interference by Bell Canada Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc.

The National Union of Public and General Employees, which represents more than 340,000 workers across the country, on Friday wrote to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to investigate the practice of "traffic shaping" and its impact on internet users.

"These internet service providers are, with little or no public accountability, implementing measures that will discriminate against the use of legal software for legitimate uses. This is unacceptable," wrote union president James Clancy. "The continued silence on these matters by the CRTC and the Canadian government violates the trust the Canadian people have placed in you."

The union wants the CRTC to enact rules prohibiting ISPs from discriminating against certain uses of the internet, such as the file-sharing protocol BitTorrent, which is used by many to share large video files. Bell and Rogers have for some time been quietly shaping traffic, or slowing these uses by limiting how much speed they get.

A spokesman for the CRTC said the regulator was aware of the complaint but had not yet officially received it. The agency, which decided against regulating the internet in 1999, is currently reviewing its jurisdiction over new media and will issue a report in May.

NUPGE's complaint was spurred by two events in the past week. On Tuesday, Chatham, Ont.-based Teksavvy blew the whistle on the fact that Bell was expanding its traffic-shaping policies to smaller ISPs, like itself, that rent its network. The following day, a large number of users complained on the CBC's website that their download of the TV program Canada's Next Great Prime Minister using BitTorrent was slow. Many pointed the finger at traffic shaping by Bell and Rogers, the country's two largest ISPs.

The union said the ISPs' actions are undermining the position Canada has built over the years as a leader in high-speed internet deployment and use, as well as the intent and function of the internet itself.

"The internet has the great potential of democratizing information and access to it," said national representative Len Bush. "In some ways, this looks like a threat against that."

A spokesperson for Rogers declined to comment.

No outrage, Bell says

Bell spokesman Jason Laszlo on Friday reiterated the company's position —that it was shaping traffic in order to prevent a small portion of bandwidth hogs from slowing speeds down for all customers.

He said there has been no backlash from customers, despite the incidents of the past week.

"Nothing has changed as far as our position in what we're doing," he said. "We're ensuring that all of our customers get a fair and equal share of the bandwidth."

Teksavvy chief executive officer Rocky Gaudrault said the decision to throttle speeds shouldn't belong to the company renting out the network, but rather to the firm providing services to customers.

"If there is to be throttling, it should be at the ISP level," he said. "It should not be before it gets to us."

Experts also say there is plenty of capacity left on the networks — a fact Bell admits to — so the traffic-shaping is being done merely to interfere with internet applications the companies see as threats to their own businesses.

"I would challenge that they are running out of capacity," Gaudrault said. "But even if that's the case, then let's revisit the actual costs and charge accordingly instead of doing these other tactics that potentially undermine the marketplace and the future of technology on the internet."

NUPGE's complaint also came a day after New Democrat MP Charlie Angus called on Industry Minister Jim Prentice to take action on keeping the internet neutral.

"Jim Prentice cannot turn a blind eye while the telecommunication companies decide which lanes of digital traffic will be deliberately filled with potholes," he wrote on his website. "These actions have serious implications for Canada’s innovation agenda. Protecting net neutrality is a fundamental cornerstone in encouraging the development of a true knowledge economy."

Angus told CBCNews.ca that consumers are being ripped off, innovation is being stifled and the service providers are making out like bandits while the government and CRTC stand idly by.

"We need to set some clear ground rules around how much power the telcos are going to have in rewiring the internet," he said. "There are anti-competitive questions and also questions about consumers getting ripped off when they sign up for promises of maximum bandwidth and then that bandwidth gets throttled down."

"This is the ultimate way of shutting down the innovation agenda in Canada... we can't let these companies arbitrarily decide who has access and who doesn't."

Government is silent

Bush said NUPGE also wrote to Prentice in late February urging an inquiry, but the union has not yet received any significant response from the minister.

Prentice's spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

Canada is behind the United States in dealing with the net neutrality issue. Last month, a neutrality bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives while Comcast Corp., the largest U.S. ISP, was hauled in front of the Federal Communications Commissions regulator to answer for its own traffic-shaping practices, which it had previously admitted to.

Comcast on Thursday pledged it would stop interfering with traffic and invest in technology to better handle traffic by the end of the year, but FCC chairman Kevin Martin said he would continue to monitor the company.

Industry analysts said Comcast's reversal of course was directly linked to the threat of regulation — a stick that needs to be waved in Canada.

"It's textbook," said University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist. "Once there's regulatory writing on the wall, there's often a move from some companies to take matters into their own hands and address some of the concern."

"The CRTC has been virtually silent and the government has shied away from this issue, which has in some ways emboldened the Bells and the Rogers to engage in the kinds of activities that they are."

While net neutrality has been a slowly simmering issue, it has exploded over the past week because of a confluence of events catalyzed by the slow downloads of the CBC's TV show, Geist said. Offering a program over the internet circumvented the traditional distribution model, which hits both Bell and Rogers — and their respective television services — in the pocketbook.

"We've almost had the perfect storm of issues arise over the past week in Canada," he said. "The CBC using BitTorrent as a method for distribution has helped crystalize many of the core issues of net neutrality."

"This raises significant competition concerns."