Net neutrality is up for debate at CRTC hearings

CRTC hearings this week could affect your monthly wireless bill. They will also cover differential pricing and net neutrality.

Treating all internet data equally is important for consumers and startups, advocates argue

CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais waits to appear before the House of Commons heritage committee in Ottawa on Oct. 20. The communications regulator will hold hearings this week on differential pricing, or zero rating, of internet services. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Imagine your internet provider told you that you could stream as much music as you want from one particular service, and they wouldn't charge you for it.

Sound too good to be true? According to many internet advocates, it is.

That's one of the issues being discussed in consultations starting this week by the CRTC, Canada's communications regulator.

But the hearings aren't just about your monthly wireless bill; discussions around differential pricing and net neutrality also raise important considerations about what sites users can access and how they access them.

The purpose of these CRTC hearings is to field responses from industry stakeholders and the public.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission will hold hearings this week that could affect your internet bill. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

"Net neutrality is the idea that all data on the internet should be treated equally by telecom providers," says David Christopher, communications director for Open Media, a consumer advocacy group that works to keep the internet open, affordable, and surveillance-free. Christopher is scheduled to testify at the hearings on Thursday.

"It means that any user should be able to access all information online, and that no sites or organization should be given priority or, for example, be able to pay for faster loading time."

For internet users, it puts the power to choose what services you access and what websites you visit in your control, as opposed to having corporations or telecommunications companies make those decisions. Net neutrality dictates that the role of the telecom provider is just to connect you to the internet.

According to Charles Falzon, dean of the faculty of communication and design at Ryerson University, maintaining a level playing field online is essential for innovation. "Net neutrality will keep our culture and our economy competitive globally."

Even Facebook was a startup

Falzon says, "If certain companies, presumably the established ones, can pay for preferential treatment, it puts new startups and independent creators at a huge disadvantage. Once upon a time even Facebook was just a startup."

The latest hurdle for net-neutrality advocates is differential pricing, or zero rating. This practice, in which internet service providers can opt to not charge customers for data used by specific applications or services, is "emerging in Canada and elsewhere as a more common practice," says CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais, and it will be a central topic at these hearings.

Here's what that means for you.

Compared to consumers in other countries, Canadians have very low data caps for wireless and home internet service;

Under differential pricing, telecommunications companies exempt certain services from your data cap. For example, your internet provider could decide that either Apple Music or Spotify doesn't count toward your data cap but the other does.
Bell Canada's head office in Montreal. The company tells the CRTC that differential internet pricing will 'directly benefit consumers.' (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Bell says the practice would increase engagement in the digital economy and make telecommunications services more affordable. Differential pricing will "directly benefit consumers in the same way that toll-free long distance, promotional coupons, waived internet installation fees and free previews of television broadcasts do," it told the CRTC.

But not all companies agree. David Watt, senior vice-president of regulatory matters for Rogers, says the company is net-neutral. "The customer should make the choice."

Critics of differential pricing point out that while promoting a service might be attractive to consumers who use it, using a service or app that isn't preferred could create overage charges. That would have a huge impact on the success of those businesses, and it could slant user behaviour.

Harming the digital economy

According to Christopher, a differential pricing policy would harm the digital economy. What happens to a new music streaming service that can't afford the fees to become zero-rated? Its chance of success is squashed.

Watt agrees. "When you're treating everyone in the same fashion, then you're not discriminating against a smaller or less well known app."

Falzon warns that if we accept this kind of highly curated and corporate-controlled narrative, "we will lag behind more progressive nations. This would not only apply to entertainment content, but equally to education, to scientific research and, perhaps most importantly, to political discourse."
A Rogers Communications sign marks the company's Toronto headquarters. Rogers says the company is net-neutral. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

That's where advocates say the CRTC needs to step in as the voice of the public. Christopher says, "No one wants tons of regulation over everything on the internet. But without this, the telecom companies could do anything they want, including overcharging consumers and treating established companies with preference over small players."

Advocates like Open Media say that for the CRTC to put users first, it needs to ensure Canada's strong net-neutrality rules are upheld.

Interconnected policies

Bell has asked that the CRTC address differential pricing and data caps as unrelated issues. But advocates see the policies as interconnected.

In addition to banning zero rating, they are asking the CRTC to do away with data caps on wired home internet service and to ensure all Canadians have at least an affordable unlimited option.

After all, the internet is not a luxury; it is an essential tool. The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a non-binding resolution in June stating that the internet is a basic human right.

Despite our growing reliance on the internet — the CRTC's annual report shows that wireless usage has surged 40 per cent in the last year — none of the big three companies offers an unlimited option for wireless.


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.