Zero rating and net neutrality

What do we lose when we get things for free?

Until June 28, 2016 the CRTC is accepting submissions ahead of hearings they'll be holding this fall on the issue of zero-rating: when internet service providers give users access to certain apps or services, without charging the user for the data they use.

Katy Anderson is a digital rights activist at Open Media. She says that the problem with zero-rating is that it violates net neutrality because it creates an preference for some content over others.

"In essence it means that, if you have a data cap you'll be worried at some point about going over, so it might influence your choices on how much internet you use and what kind of internet. So what the companies can do is make special deals, and say, 'ok, you get unlimited YouTube but if you want to watch Vimeo that's going to cost you.'"  There have already been several complaints about a new offer from Videotron, the Quebec telecom provider, that allows subscribers of certain wireless plans to have unlimited streaming from select services such as Spotify and Google Music

We last talked about zero-rating on Spark in January, when there was a debate in India over Facebook's Free Basics program. Free Basics offered users access to Facebook and select other services, which wouldn't count towards their data usage. But that program was never available to users in North America, so where does the law stand on zero-rating and net-neutrality here in Canada and in the United States?

Geoff White is external council to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), which advocates on behalf of consumer interests in the telecommunications and broadcasting sectors. They have appeared in front of the CRTC in the past, and they likely be involved in the hearings on zero-rating this fall. He says that the law around net neutrality "really comes from traditional law under telecommunications that deals with unjust discrimination. That's in the Telecommunications Act. It's very much a question now about, as the internet evolves so rapidly, whether or not the traditional legislative framework that applied to plain old telephone service is still relevant and applicable to modern day broadband services. And that's exactly what the Federal Communications Commission in the US has been looking at in recent months."

The CRTC will hold a public hearing on the issue of zero-rating on October 31st.

We contacted Bell and Videotron for this story, but did not receive statements from either before our deadline.


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