Technology & Science

Tories reluctant to address net neutrality, documents suggest

Internal documents suggest the Tory government is reluctant to impose consumer safeguards for the web because it wants to protect the competitive position of businesses that offer internet access.

Internal documents suggest the Tory government is reluctant to impose consumer safeguards for the web because it wants to protect the competitive position of businesses that offer internet access.

Documents obtained by the Canadian Press indicate that senior advisers to Industry Minister Maxime Bernier, who has previously declared a "consumer first" approach, are carefully heeding the arguments of large telecommunications companies like Videotron and Telus against so-called net neutrality legislation.

Net neutrality, dubbed the First Amendment of the internet in the United States where the issue has stirred up passionate debate, aims to ensure the public can view the smallest blogs just as quickly and easily as the largest corporate websites. It stops telecom giants from ensuring that pages of companies that pay them load faster than any others.

Big content providers like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are dead set against scrapping net neutrality, saying it would destroy the free and open nature of the internet and also create a tiered, dollar-driven net that favours the wealthiest corporations over everyone else.

But the telecom giants, here and in the U.S., argue that controlling data transmissions over the internet would allow them to ensure quality of service and to encourage investment in broadband networks.

Report recommends changes

Bernier has been poring over a report for almost a year by the federally appointed Telecommunications Policy Review Panel that recommends changes to the Telecommunications Act, including replacing a clause on "unjust discrimination" that does little to either uphold the principles of net neutrality or prevent them from being violated.

One internet expert calls the minister's briefing materials, obtained under the Access to Information Act, "one-sided."

"These documents reveal that in Canada, the industry minister and his policy people appear unlikely to provide Canadian internet users with similar protections to those being offered in the United States," Michael Geist, law professor at the University of Ottawa, said Tuesday.

Jim Johannsson, spokesman for Telus, says Canadian consumers have nothing to fear, and disputes the notion that the current legislation needs to be replaced with something tougher.

"The existing legislation has never really been tested, so it's a stretch to say it's ineffective," Johannsson said. "Should the need arise, the CRTC has the authority to deal with any problems."

The internal documents outline the government's position on net neutrality, a debate that has been raging south of the border but has received little attention in Canada despite having the potential to forever change the internet as we know it.

In the various background papers and question period notes prepared for Bernier, there is short shrift given to the arguments in favour of net neutrality legislation. Bernier is advised that major telecom companies are "determined to play a greater role in how internet content is delivered" and that "they believe they should be the gatekeepers of content, with the freedom to impose fees for their role."

Yet elsewhere in the documents, Bernier's advisers, despite clearly acknowledging the intentions of the companies, say "it would be premature at this time to draw any conclusions."

Isabelle Fontaine, spokeswoman for Bernier, said the minister has yet to make his mind up about net neutrality.

"Given the critical importance of the telecommunications sector to Canada's economy and future well-being, any policy changes need to be carefully considered," she said in an e-mail. "As such, the minister continues to consult broadly with stakeholders."

The documents state that public policy must consider consumer protection and choice, but it should also "enable market forces to continue to shape the evolution of the internet infrastructure, investment and innovation to the greatest extent feasible."

"The minister and the department claim to have an open mind about net neutrality and that they are studying the recommendations, yet it's clear from the documents that they have no intention of adopting the panel's recommendation," Geist said.

U.S. debate

Net neutrality is such a concern in the U.S. that the Federal Communications Commission was able to persuade AT&T to agree to net neutrality provisions as part of its merger approval with BellSouth in December.

Last summer, American telecom companies were successful in gutting the net neutrality law that specified no provider of physical infrastructure— from roads to railways to electrical or telephone companies— could have any say over the content and services flowing over their networks. Congress is currently reviewing its decision to scrap the law.