Net Neutrality and Usage Billing

Just when we’ve managed to get our heads around SOPA and the issues surrounding Canada’s Copyright Modernization Act, along comes another blog post on a different yet no less thorny issue: net neutrality.

Possibly the most difficult of the three to simplify, I’ll attempt a very quick jumping off point.

Net neutrality, at its fundamental root, is about equal access to the internet for all. It embraces the principle that internet users should be in control of the content they view and the applications they use online.

A quick caveat: it ought to be noted that the previous link is to a Google blog, and that everyone from the individual user to giant corporations has a dog in this fight. Google themselves teamed with Verizon for their official stance on the issue, which stopped short of endorsing complete network neutrality. On the other hand, Microsoft, Vonage, eBay and Amazon, among others, have all supported neutrality regulation. Interestingly, some of its proponents have been the Ayn Rand Foundation and other right wing/libertarian organizations such as the Cato Institute and the Goldwater Institute.

But back to definitions. Another way of looking at it is to recognise its anti-discriminatory facet. Essentially, it allows any site on the internet the theoretical and even practical reach of a traditional TV or radio station, unfettered by any meddling (blocking, speeding or slowing down of web content) from Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

And to bring this back to Canada, just over a year ago, the CRTC was asked by a Montreal consulting firm to cease imposing a usage-based pricing regime, on the same day Netflix expressed doubts about its future in Canada.

Usage-based billing, in opposition to net neutrality is: “The practice of an ISP billing “by the byte” for Internet use. Most commonly, ISPs without unlimited download caps will set a limit of 50, 100 or 300 gigabytes per month as included in their users’ accounts, after which each gigabyte (or megabyte as is often the case in cellular internet) is billed to the user.

Anyway, the backlash grew in intensity until Canada’s largest telecommunications company, Bell, capitulated on its plan to increase the cost of its internet services via usage-based billing, while the CRTC eventually cut a distinct compromise, in which smaller ISPs will pay for their total capacity required and not the actual volume of data downloaded, a crucial difference.

It’s another partial victory for consumer advocacy groups and those who support a free and open internet, but as with SOPA and Bill C-11, vigilance on the part of every stakeholder is going to remain essential.