The Current

Q&A: What would a U.S. repeal of net neutrality mean for Canadians?

The FCC's upcoming vote on whether to repeal "net neutrality" in the U.S. could have sweeping implications for Americans, but Canadians also have a lot to lose.
Net Neutrality supporter Lance Brown Eyes protests the FCC's recent decision to repeal the program in Los Angeles on Nov. 28, 2017. (Kyle Grillot/Reuters)

Read Story Trancript

Back in the early 1990s when we first started hearing about "Internet", we couldn't have imagined how it would change the world. But today, internet users in the United States are worried about its future.

Next week, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote to repeal so-called "net neutrality" regulations.

Laura Tribe, executive director of Open Media, a non-profit dedicated to preserving the open internet, joined The Current to explain how this decision could have far-reaching effects — including here in Canada.

Piya Chattopadhyay: Over the last week or so, we have been hearing about this looming vote [with] the FCC. But I want to start by asking you a very basic question which is: What the heck is net neutrality anyway?

Laura Tribe: Net neutrality sounds really boring, and it's really important. They're the rules that ensure that when you log onto the internet ... you get the whole internet. When you log in it means that your internet service provider can't pick and choose what you see online.

They can't charge you more for some content or less for others, and they're not allowed to discriminate against competing content to make sure that ... when you pay your internet bill, you get the entire internet when you log in.

Federal Communication Commission commissioner Ajit Pai speaks during an open hearing and vote on net neutrality in Washington in 2015. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

PC: Is there an analogy when it comes to net neutrality beyond like, how we can use the internet every day now, to help explain what a potential change might mean?

LT: So essentially what they're trying to do in the U.S. — taking away these net neutrality rules — means that the internet is going to look a lot more like your cable package which is exactly why we're turning to the internet: to get away from those cable packages.

So it means that you're going to start to see things like bundles the same way that we have sports packages and movie packages on TV. We'll start to see things like social media packages or news packages on the internet which means that you could be charged more for any individual piece. And there's going to be extraordinary fees to unlock the entire internet the way that we already have access to it now.

PC: Who and why would people want this in the U.S.? Who does this benefit, getting rid of it?

LT: Ultimately this benefits a very small handful of the telecom companies. It's just the big companies that are trying to protect their own business interests. They are ones that used to own cable and they're not making money off of you anymore. So they're trying to make money off of the internet now instead.

Michael Howell attends a pro-net neutrality rally in the neighborhood where then-U.S. President Barack Obama attended a fundraiser in Los Angeles on July 23, 2014. (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)

PC: So this is a U.S. issue at this point. We have different telecoms. Do I need to care, as a Canadian?

LT: You do need to care as a Canadian. We do have net neutrality rules here in Canada. They look a little bit different to what they are in the U.S., but they're similar and they're really important — which means that when we log onto the internet here in Canada, we get the whole package just as we're used to it.

But there will be impacts for us here in Canada. So the first one which, is probably going to be the most immediately felt ... is that the costs are going to go up for some of the services that we love.

So if Netflix has to pay extra to make sure that it's in internet fast lane in the U.S., they're going to have to pass those fees onto their customers. And it's really unlikely that the limit that to just their American customer base when they can diffuse it over a larger audience. So things like Spotify, Netflix or any of our favourite services and websites from the U.S. might get a bit more expensive.

Spotify was one of dozens of companies who participated in an online protest against proposed changes to net neutrality in July 2017. (CBC News)

PC: What else is a potential ramification for us here in Canada?

LT: We're seeing already [that] Bell has started putting forward proposals for things like censorship to start blocking content that they don't want people to have access to because it undermines their content and cable efforts.

It's kind of the equivalent of saying you can only have access to authors A to C in the library or something like that.- Open Media's Laura Tribe

I think the third thing for us to keep in mind is that it will actually make it harder for Canadian businesses to compete in the U.S. Companies have to essentially pay to play. If you want to be delivered at the fastest speeds you might need to pay extra, as a business.

And so for Canadian businesses that might not have the same capital that U.S. companies do that they're competing against. They may not be able to pay to ensure that their content is making it into people's homes faster or not being throttled or blocked. So it's going to make it harder for us to enter the U.S. market as well.

PC: Who else are or what other groups stand to lose the most if net neutrality is repealed in the U.S.?

LT: It's anyone who isn't in the most privileged position who can afford to pay for everything and you're content isn't in the majority.... We've seen concerns from advocates around accessibility and what does it look like when you need accessible content but really you can only afford the most basic services that are being put through.

If you think that you only need content for email and Facebook — which is something that we kind of say: 'We only use the Internet for those few things.' But what happens when you're linking off to articles that are off-site?

Lance Brown Eyes protests the FCC's recent decision to repeal net neutrality in Los Angeles on Nov. 28, 2017. (Kyle Grillot/Reuters)

We view the Internet as this monolithic thing ... but when you think about what the impact is when you start to lose different parts of it, or only get exposed to certain parts of it, it really shapes the discourse of who we are as a community as well when we're only seeing bits and pieces of the content that's available to us.

It's kind of the equivalent of saying you can only have access to authors A to C in the library or something like that.

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Click or tap on the Listen tab at the top of this page to listen to the full segment, including perspectives from Alexander Dirksen, manager of strategy and engagement with the First Nations Technology Council and Shelley Robinson, executive director of National Capital FreeNet.

This segment was produced by The Currents Julian Uzielli and Susana Ferreira.