Why you should be paying attention to the net neutrality debate
"You have used 100 per cent of your data. Additional charges will apply."
Would you believe that line is as Canadian as real cheese curds and ketchup chips?
But that could all change.
Earlier this month, Canada's Internet regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), heard from academics, Internet service providers and citizen and digital rights groups at a hearing in Ottawa.
The CRTC wanted to investigate net neutrality — the idea that all content on the Internet is treated equally — and figure out if it's okay for some content on the Internet to be priced differently.
So how did we get here and why are these hearings are so important?
They were triggered due to attempts by big telecom companies to price certain apps and services differently than others, for example by excluding some services from data caps, while imposing punitive data charges on others. This is called "differential pricing" or "zero-rating."
I work for an Internet advocacy organization, and we've heard from more than 60 thousand Canadians that this practice is a terrible idea for consumers, because it interferes with consumer choice. Once you pay for Internet access, it should be up to you to use it as you see fit.
We feel our telecom companies shouldn't be getting in the way, trying to influence you to use some services over others. The winners and losers of the Internet should be chosen by actual users on the web.
We've also seen that it's a bad idea for innovation. Smart new startups — think the next Netflix, or YouTube — could never get off the ground if they had to compete on a tilted playing field, biased towards already powerful incumbents.
Say the year is 2009 and that your Internet provider has partnered with the hot new social media platform that is going viral online. Remember MySpace? And let's say your provider is offering free MySpace data usage to all their customers so that it won't count against their data caps.
This would make it so you and your friends have an incentive to use MySpace over other platforms, like the then-just-starting Twitter and Facebook, and could mean that these platforms were never able to make it off the ground.
Importantly, without data caps there would be no reason to price data differently. All data would be unlimited
This is why, in a nutshell, axing those data caps — and building in essential consumer protections that benefit us all — was our big ask when we were at the CRTC.
Canadians are currently subject to extremely low data caps and very high overage charges, especially when compared with the rest of the industrialized world.
So let's hope that when the CRTC comes back with its decision, we'll see an end to data caps entirely.
We want to ensure Canada can finally start catching up with our counterparts elsewhere in the industrialized world. Like the United Kingdom, where phone plans with unlimited data can be had for just $30 a month.
And last month, a CRTC study showed that Canadians mobile phone usage is up by 44 per cent over the last year — so we know there's a massive, growing appetite out there from Canadians who just want to be able to use the Internet without needing to worry about low data caps and surprisingly high overage fees.