How repealing net neutrality in U.S. could hurt Canadian pocketbooks

If the U.S. repeals net neutrality rules, it will affect how Americans access the internet. But it could also mean Canadians will see their costs to access favourite services like Netflix or YouTube rise as companies pay service providers to make sure their content remains available in the U.S.

'This will have an impact on the internet as we know it,' digital rights advocate Laura Tribe says

If the U.S. Federal Communications Commission decides to roll back 2015's net neutrality protections, it could end up costing Canadians more when it comes to paying for subscription fees to American-based online services. (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)

Canada has policies in place to ensure the internet is equal for everyone, but if the United States goes ahead with rolling back what's called "net neutrality" in that country, it could cost Canadians — literally.

This week, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chief Ajit Pai said the commission will vote on Dec. 14 on whether or not to rescind net neutrality rules.

The rules were brought in under former U.S. president Barack Obama's administration in 2015 and are supported by major tech companies including Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Repealing net neutrality could open up the doors to allow U.S. service providers to "carve up the internet and serve it to you in packages," Laura Tribe, executive director of the digital rights advocacy group Open Media in Ottawa, told CBC News.

"It will put all of the control of what we see online, what we are able to do online and access online, into those service providers," Tribe said. "[It takes] the control away from the customers and [is] actually giving that to the companies."

Federal Communication Commission commissioner Ajit Pai speaks during an open hearing and vote on net neutrality in Washington earlier this year. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Cost passed to Canadians? 

"Many of the content services that Canadians consume most highly are American," University of Waterloo professor Aimée Morrison said, citing sites like YouTube, the video-game streaming site Twitch, Netflix or Apple Music.

Those sites will be negotiating with American internet service providers to make sure their content is available in the U.S.

Pay-to-play internet in the U.S. could hurt Canadian firms trying to compete. "And they're going to do that by paying money," she explained.

"Extra costs just to get their content streaming in the U.S. is going to probably be passed along to both American and Canadian consumers in the form of higher subscription fees."

Tribe agreed Canadians could expect subscription fees to go up, but revoking net neutrality could also affect internet usage in other countries because many look to the U.S. to lead the way on telecommunications policy.

"This will have an impact on the internet as we know it," Tribe asserted.

Canadian internet providers can't pick which apps and services count against your data cap, says the federal communications watchdog.

"It's another day that we can all be happy we're Canadians because very recently the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) in Canada positively affirmed net neutrality as an important value for Canadian internet," said Morrison. 

How net neutrality works

Currently, the internet is like your telephone, Morrison explained to CBC News.

You pay a company for access to the infrastructure and the fee doesn't change based on the call you're making — whether you call your child to check in, order a pizza or call police in an emergency, it's all the same price.

"What you're paying your ISP for is simply access to the tube that the content moves through," Morrison said of the current system.

But if net neutrality is repealed in the U.S., the internet will work more like cable television.

"With cable TV, what you're paying to access is the infrastructure that brings television content into your home, but you're also paying different fees based on what kind of content you want to access," Morrison said.

Listen to the interview with Aimée Morrison:

It could be everyone gets basic or "skinny" internet with something like email, she said. But you may need to pay more for higher speeds, meaning if you want to stream YouTube or Netflix, expect to pay more.

Pai, a U.S. Republican Party member appointed by President Donald Trump to the role as chief of the FCC, argues the change would give consumers more choice.

Repealing net neutrality could mean companies like YouTube will need to pay American internet service providers to make their content easily accessible to American companies. That cost may get passed on to American and Canadian consumers. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

It would allow "companies of all kinds in every sector to compete and let consumers decide who wins and loses," he has said.

But Jessica Rosenworcel, one of two Democrats on the five-person commission, said the move will crush freedom and competition, not foster it.

Listen to Jessica Rosenworcel's interview on CBC Radio's As It Happens:

Censorship concerns

Tribe said there are also big concerns about censorship in the U.S.

"One of the big things that companies want to do, which also impacts their profits, is block out their competitor's content, slow down things that are not providing their own services," she said. 

Many companies that sell internet services also own media companies, including television channels.

"If you're trying to access your competitor's content, or even a competing internet service, that could now be blocked and they have that ability to do that," Tribe said.

With files from Markus Schwabe, CBC Sudbury


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