The net neutrality battle for equal access vs. pay-for-premium internet

Brazil and Europe have taken an open internet stance, while the U.S. seems to be heading in that direction as well. Canada has a hands-off approach.

Brazil, Europe take open internet stance, and U.S. seems set to join them

Countries around the world are grappling with the issue of net neutrality and whether to allow internet providers to charge more for access to a broadband fast lane. (Denis Rozhnovsky/Shutterstock)

Debate has raged around the world about how all that internet content streaming into billions of households should be managed.

"Net neutrality," the dry and antiseptic term bandied about in this debate, refers to the belief that internet service providers must treat all this traffic equally.

That principle flew in the face of the internet service providers, however. For years in the U.S., cable providers wanted rules that would allow them to charge high-volume content providers extra to get their material to users on a broadband fast lane.

The Federal Communications Commission was expected on Feb. 26, 2015, to finally come down with its decision, one that would likely side with proponents of net neutrality.

Brazil, Chile and Europe have taken an approach that supports net neutrality.

Here are some of the main elements in the debate. 

What is net neutrality?

Also referred to as "open internet," it's essentially the idea that all content on the internet, regardless of its form or who provides it, should be treated equally by internet providers. Consumers are free to choose what they want to use on the internet, without ISPs restricting or shaping it in any way. Advocates for an "open internet" say the goal is to ensure freedom of expression, enable innovation and promote competition. 

Why would companies fight against net neutrality?

Internet service providers in the U.S. were pushing for rules to allow them to charge a premium for the use of their fastest broadband. Companies willing to pay for the special service, such as those providing broadband-heavy video or gaming services, would ensure their content gets to their customers faster and without interruption. The extra money paid to ISPs would help pay for improved broadband networks, the companies argued at the time.

What's the debate?

Net neutrality advocates argue that setting up a premium service basically creates a "toll road" for companies with deep pockets. Plus, any special treatment provisions might enable ISPs to decide themselves what content a consumer gets and when, perhaps limiting certain types of content to low-volume hours. Small tech firms and entrepreneurs argued it's discriminatory to create special fast lanes, and could result in fewer startups flourishing.

Large internet and content providers, however, said they needed to charge more for high-bandwidth content like video streaming or voice services like Skype. They argued that under net neutrality, the companies taking up the most bandwidth with their content aren't paying their fair share to improve the internet infrastructure.

What countries have net neutrality laws?

In April 2014, Brazil signed into law a bill of digital rights that protects the privacy of internet users and guarantees equal access. Dubbed its Internet Constitution, the law bans telecommunications companies from charging premium prices for special content.

In 2010, Chile became the first country to create a net neutrality law. The following year, the Netherlands followed suit, with Slovenia joining soon after.

In April 2014, the European Parliament voted to protect net neutrality. The decision came after the telecom regulator said ISPs were blocking or slowing down services like Skype and Netflix.

What about the United States?

There's been a years-long battle in the U.S. on net neutrality. The FCC created rules in 2010 that banned broadband providers from prioritizing internet traffic. But a court struck down the rules in January 2014. It said the FCC contradicted itself by treating internet service providers like a "common carrier" such as a telephone utility, after it had already deemed them exempt from "common carrier" treatment.

Soon after, Netflix inked a deal with Comcast, the country's largest ISP, to pay extra for preferential treatment of its movie streams.

There has since been some back-and-forth with the FCC's position on "open internet." The Wall Street Journal reported in 2014 that the FCC appeared set to reverse its original position.

But in February 2015 the regulator proposed new rules that would prohibit ISPs from slowing down or speeding up web traffic for a price. Those rules are now likely to be adopted in a vote on Feb. 26, essentially reclassifying the internet as a public utility.

Where does Canada stand?

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has taken a hands-off approach. It established traffic management rules to prevent discrimination and content blocking, but the telecom regulator won't enforce the guidelines. The onus lies on consumers to complain about an unfair practice.

Late last year, Manitoban Ben Klass filed a complaint saying Bell was giving itself an unfair advantage by charging more for Netflix content than its own competing content. A ruling in January 2015 called the ISP's pricing model "unlawful," but Bell Mobility Inc. has filed an application with the Federal Court of Appeal to overturn that decision.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?