Extended interview with internet advocate Laura Tribe
I spoke to Laura Tribe for an article I was writing for Metro News, published yesterday. It's shocking to know that the net neutrality protection we take for granted can be taken away just as quickly as it was in the United States—where, as Tribe told me, Americans were celebrating their own protection rules only two years ago. As more details come out about what U.S. internet packages might look like, there is more speculation that it will cost Canadians to browse American content online. But instead of concentrating on what might happen, Canadians can and should be working to ensure net neutrality stays at the core of our internet laws.
And that will be important to remember as the rules under the Telecommunications Act are under review and could soon change. So instead of shrinking away from the problem, here's some knowledge from someone who knows what they're talking about.
Firstly, what is Open Media?
Open Media is a grassroots organization that works to keep the internet open, affordable and surveillance-free. That’s our mandate. And when we got started, it was really the result of trying to give Canadians a voice to fight back against some of the things that were happening to control the internet, and spiralling costs to get Canadians online. What we’ve seen over the past 10 years—it’s been about a decade since we started— is Canadians really care about the internet and they care about how it works and they care about how much it costs. They want to make sure they’re able to be online, and safe when they are there.
It’s pretty amazing. We have over 250,000 people that are part of our community in Canada. We’re really working to make sure they know what’s happening on these issues and that they’re also able to raise their voices and connect with decision-makers on things like this matter.
How can the push to end net neutrality in the States affect us Canadians?
One of the things that has been so amazing, even over the past few days, to see from Canadians is understanding that two years ago, Americans were celebrating their own net neutrality protection—and how quickly that has turned around. What we’re seeing from Canadians right now is really wanting to make sure that that doesn’t happen to us. Right now, we do have strong protections for net neutrality in Canada through the Telecommunications Act and various decisions that have come out from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) but I think we will see some ripple effect from what happens in the U.S. regardless.
I think one of the things that were most concerned about is a increase in costs, not for our internet that we’re paying for at home, but the services and content that we access online that comes out of the United States. If companies like Netflix or Spotify now have to pay the internet providers in the US extra money, just to make sure that their content is being delivered at the speed that they need—if they want HD video or they want to make sure there’s no dropping of audio, they have to pay extra to get in that fast lane—ultimately those costs could be passed on to consumers. And we don’t that those will be passed on to everyone around the world as opposed to just Americans but I think ultimately if it impacts their bottom line, it impacts our costs. That’s one of the most direct effects that we are concerned about seeing.
Our Telecommunications Act, which are the rules that govern how the CRTC makes its decisions around the internet, is actually up for review. The government has said that it’s going to review them and revise them. It will probably take them a year or two to do it. It’s not a quick process. In doing that, the government has said that it’s supportive of net neutrality, but we’ve also seen from the start, telecom’s advocating really hard to loosen net neutrality protections and every time that it comes up at the CRTC we see these major ISP and telecom providers really fighting to loosen those protections. The rules that oversee all of the CRTC proceedings are up for debate you can guarantee that there are going to be some really big telecom interests in making sure that they’re able to have their voices heard on that, too.
What's next for Canada?
What we’re really working to make sure Canadians are a part of that conversation. The government had said they wanted to protect net neutrality, but they know that people are watching and we’ll hold them accountable to make sure they get it right. We do have protections in Canada, but as they review the Telecommunications Act, they can actually enshrine that right in there and make sure that it’s guaranteed at the core of our internet in Canada and how we make our decisions around internet policy.
One of the difference between Canada and the Federal Communications Commission is...right now the FCC is proposing these changes on its own. The FCC is trying to change the rules that it uses to govern the internet. In Canada, the government decides the rules that the CRTC uses to make its decisions. Those rules are up for debate and that’s what the government is looking to review. The government has said it has a strong commitment to net neutrality and we’re really hoping that as they review this they actually strengthen our net neutrality laws. But inevitably, if anything is up for review and part of the political process, it could get better and it could get worse. We’re just making sure that the government actually goes farther in protecting net neutrality and doesn’t go the way of the US.
What is net neutrality, in simple terms?
Net neutrality is a really good thing. It’s the rules that keep the internet open the way that we know it. When you’re on the internet you’re connected to the whole internet, not just a part of it. It means that companies who provide our internet are not allowed to pick and choose what you see online. They can’t give you some content faster than others, or slower than others. They can’t charge you extra to access certain types of content or part of the internet. Once you’re online, everything you do or see is up to you.
What we’re seeing in the U.S. is a real move to take away those requirements to let companies carve up the internet to look more like cable TV. So the way that way that on TV we have a sports package and a movie package, you could similarly in the U.S. now have a video package or a gaming package or a social media package—which if you use the internet heavily in certain ways it might seem appealing. But in effect, it’s a way for them to charge extra for access to what you already have now, which is the entire internet.
What are other countries doing?
Each country defines the rules of how the internet operates within it. The example of Portugal is a really good one for what it could look like in the United States.
We’ve seen other countries like India actually push back really hard against these kind of practices, which in their case would discount certain internet and make it free. In the case of India, they were trying to fight back against Facebook, which was trying to promote its internet.org platform...so it would be if you want to use the internet and you use Facebook’s platform, it’s free, and everything else costs money. The problem with that is it really restricts what people are able to gain access to. It restricts the type of information you’re able to see. It restricts the type of content you can see. It creates a really narrow user experience.
As someone who loves the entire internet, that’s a problem for me. For people who are trying to look for jobs and are trying to participate in communications and learn about the news and use it for entertainment, you shouldn’t have to pick and choose what you do online because you can’t afford to pay for the full package. That’s really what we’re looking at in the U.S.
What can Canadians do?
There’s a few things that Canadians can do. The first is the CRTC is actually holding a consultation right now about what the future of programming and internet should look like in Canada. That’s going to be feeding into the government’s review of the Telecommunications and Broadcasting Act. What we’re asking people to do is to tell the CRTC explicitly that we want net neutrality to be at the heart of all future communications processes.
We’re also launching an action for people around the world who are concerned to add their voices so that we can deliver collectively an international voice to the united states to say here’s how it will impact people outside of just America.
I think the biggest thing is that we don’t let that happen here in Canada. We should let the government know it does matter to us, that we’re glad that they’re standing up in support of net neutrality but we really want to enshrine it in law to make sure that we don’t lose it moving forward.
Raise your voice
Ensure the government puts net neutrality at the heart of the future of our telecom rules by submitting a letter.