Canada should fight for open internet, says former head of FCC

The former head of the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S. has a strong warning for Canada: do what you can to protect the internet.

Trump-appointed head of FCC calls regulations imposed under Obama 'heavy-handed'

In this March 17, 2015 file photo, then Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. He thinks a proposal to undo net neutrality in the U.S. could have impacts felt in Canada. (The Associated Press)

The former head of the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S. has a strong warning for Canada: do what you can to protect the internet.

Tom Wheeler, head of the FCC under former U.S. president Barack Obama, said the Trump administration's decision to repeal his net neutrality policy could become a cross-border issue. 

In 2015, Wheeler approved an order that barred internet service providers from blocking or slowing down consumer access to web content.

This week, his replacement, Republican Ajit Pai, unveiled plans to repeal that decision and said the U.S. regulator will prevent states and cities from adopting similar protections. Pai said under his proposal, the U.S. federal government will "stop micromanaging the internet."

When Pai unveiled his plan, he said in a tweet that he wanted to repeal what he called the "heavy-handed" regulations imposed under the Obama administration and "return to the light-touch framework under which the internet developed and thrived before 2015."

But Wheeler, the FCC leader under Obama, sees trouble ahead. He told CBC Radio's The House that the U.S. market is now "dominated by a handful of gatekeepers that are exacting some kind of tribute. I'm sure that'll be felt around the world."

"I hope that the Canadian government is smarter than the United States government and won't let this kind of closing down an open internet to exist."

If the term "net neutrality" is unfamiliar, Wheeler describes it as "the openness of the internet." Others have said removing net neutrality could create a two-tier internet.

"Will the internet be like your telephone service, where anybody can use it and your privacy is protected, or will it be like your cable television service, where somebody makes the decisions as to what you can see? [And where] they start charging you extra prices for things you want to see," he said.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, seen here testifying before a Senate judiciary subcommittee in 2016, offered details of his vision in a post published online, saying 'public-utility style regulations adopted in 2015 have stifled infrastructure network investment and innovation.' (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Asked about the issue on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters he is concerned about what is happening in the U.S., calling net neutrality "essential to keep the freedom associated with the internet alive."

"God bless Justin Trudeau for standing up for net neutrality," said Wheeler. 

How will it impact Canada?

Wheeler said changes to the U.S. market are likely to have a ripple effect on Canadians.

"One of the interesting challenges is that, as the world becomes interconnected, then what happens in major markets ends up affecting the whole world," he said.

While net neutrality is protected in Canada's telecommunications policy, the U.S. policy change could mean a hit to northern pocket books, said Laura Tribe, executive director of the digital rights advocacy group Open Media.

Pro-net neutrality internet activists rally Los Angeles. 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)

Popular content providers like Netflix and Spotify could have to pay extra fees to ensure they're available in different internet bundles, potentially driving up costs for consumers across the board and around the world, she said.

Tribe said it could also hurt Canadian companies wanting to compete in the U.S., since they could have to pay to play.

"If the CBC wants to compete with things like the New York Times, or if any of our Canadian newspaper outlets want to compete with the New York Times or any American outlets, unless we're paying to be part of the news packages, we might be put last," she said.

NAFTA negotiations 

Enter NAFTA.

Open Media is pushing for the government to bring net neutrality to the negotiating table, "because it will have impact on Canada and Canadian businesses, it's something that should be part of the discussion," said Tribe.

Raising net neutrality during the ongoing trade talks between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico is "a really interesting concept," said Wheeler, a former venture capitalist.

Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor and online law expert, said he thinks the issue will likely be raised during the talks, since NAFTA's digital trade chapter borrows heavily from the original Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, which included a net neutrality provision.

"Whether or not Canada will be willing to actually push hard to create a strong, enforceable net neutrality provision remains to be seen," he said, while noting there are incentives on all sides to close outstanding chapters, including digital trade.

But: "I wouldn't expect Canada to die on a hill for net neutrality."

The former head of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission talks about the current effort to roll back net neutrality regulations.

With files from Chris Hall