Net neutrality has become a controversial fact of tech life as well as a confusing business and political buzz phrase.
Sometimes referred to as freedom-of-Internet, net neutrality is the principle that all Internet service providers should enable user access to all content and applications, regardless of the source and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites.
“Net neutrality enforces that enterprises play fair to ensure consumers and enterprises get the choice they deserve,” says Lindsay Skabar, vice president of communications and marketing at Axia FibreNet, the Calgary-based designer and operator of several open-access fibre-based Internet and data networks. “After all, everyone’s ability to access data and services online should be considered equal. Without net neutrality, consumers, companies and institutions could lose equal access to all the online services and tools they need.”
Even for some tech-savvy users, thoroughly understanding net neutrality can be a tricky tech challenge. Reasonable analogies sometimes help.
“Internet service providers like Shaw, Telus, Bell and others should treat all Internet traffic equally,” says Vincent Fung, a leading IT industry expert and the managing director and CEO of Calgary’s Debian Information Technology. “There should be no ability for anyone to get priority for their traffic or have their product blocked.
“Net neutrality means that everything should be treated with the same access, like a network of highways. No discrimination about type of vehicles or what the vehicle is transporting. Whether it’s driving a motorcycle, a minivan, a sports car, an 18-wheeler or a school bus, it may drive on the highway. No express lanes or HOV lanes that allow certain types of vehicles to travel faster than others. And it allows things to be directly connected to the highway: a restaurant, a convenience store, a mall, a gas station or a farm.
“Proponents of net neutrality say that treating everything equally makes it fair for everyone to use ‘the highway,’” he says. “Without net neutrality, there is potential to surcharge users for getting access but severely limit or even prevent their ability to utilize the system.”
In business and consumer terms, ending net neutrality raises concerns about restricted access, extra fees and surcharges.
“It means all that and more,” Skabar adds, “but it’s important to consider that net neutrality is also about performance. Ending net neutrality is a kind of Internet-performance censorship. It’s about freezing up all the time, spinning wheels, typing a word into Google and delays connecting. Users will simply not accept poor performance.”
Helping Canadians deal with the net-neutrality issue, Axia FibreNet recently published A Guide for Canadian Enterprises (www.AxiaFibreNet.com/NetNeutrality.com). It bluntly explains a sweeping but basic tech fact of contemporary business: “Net neutrality is based on the idea that access to the Internet is necessary to modern life and that net neutrality is a free and open Internet in which all traffic is treated equally, with Internet service providers (ISPs) having no right to block or throttle (slow down) traffic to certain sites or prioritize specific sites through ‘fast lanes’ with preferential billing practices.”
So far, net neutrality is how the Canadian business of the Internet is done. It may change. Suddenly politics has infected the net-neutrality concept, mostly because the U.S. – a giant and influential player in the IT world – recently changed American rules about open Internet access. Last year, aggressive lobbying by the biggest U.S. telecommunication companies (including Comcast and AT&T) to monetize their networks paid off. The FCC (the American equivalent of the CRTC) ended net neutrality in the U.S., ruling that the marketplace, not government, should sort it out.
The change has become a festering North American controversy.
“The existing regulatory framework in the U.S. and Canada treats access to the Internet as a utility,” explains Catherine Heggerud, an instructor of business technology management at the Haskayne School of Business. “Underscoring this is the notion that the free movement of ideas on the Internet is a tenant of democracy. Eliminating this free movement of ideas makes people uncomfortable.
“With utilities such as electricity and gas we are free to purchase from different sources providing a competitive environment. Net neutrality ensures similar privileges via the Internet, but the absence of net neutrality would allow Internet providers to tailor services. Fundamentally, it is a question of whether you believe Internet access is a natural monopoly similar to a utility that needs to be regulated,” she cautions.
Some Canadian IT insiders also warn that, sooner or later, the recent American net-neutrality shakeup may cause net-neutrality ripples (at least some commotion) in Canada.
“The current U.S. situation is a good example,” Skabar points out. “The loss of net neutrality opens the door for a two-tiered system in which companies can afford and are willing to pay extra for preferential treatment by Internet service providers. Organizations that don’t pay the extra run the risk of slow and poor performance or being left out entirely.”
She warns that under such a pay-for-access system, a user’s Internet will resemble a compulsory cable TV package which upsells consumers to purchase access to specific content rather than offering access to an unrestricted open network.
“Of course, a key part of the motive for the U.S. move to end net neutrality is profit,” Fung admits. “The ‘highway owners’ have the potential to make a lot more money without net neutrality.” He underscores that net neutrality is also a double-edged sword. “There are arguments for both sides. The Internet needs some level of control to function efficiently and effectively but allowing the owners of the infrastructure to do as they please to regulate what runs on their systems is also bad. There must be a balance.
“Proponents of net neutrality believe that it is the government’s job to ensure that these private owners don’t abuse the system in the pursuit of profits.”
“Net neutrality enforces that enterprises play fair to ensure consumers and enterprises get the choice they deserve,” Skabar emphasizes. “After all, everyone’s ability to access data and services online should be considered equal. Without net neutrality, consumers, businesses and institutions could lose equal access to all the online services and tools they need.”
Haskayne’s Catherine Heggerud is not overly concerned with the recent FCC decision. “The CRTC seems committed to maintaining net neutrality. Certain telecommunication providers are lobbying to move towards ending net neutrality, but I don’t believe the CRTC will follow suit. While generally the borderless nature of the Internet makes it difficult to impose regulations in one environment that don’t apply elsewhere, that may not be the case for net neutrality, where it is dependent on that physical connection to the end consumer, the so-called ‘last mile.’”
She points out that regulations, and deregulations, in the Canadian telecommunication sector are nothing new. “But you can’t look at the Internet as a stand-alone regulatory environment. Deregulation in the telecommunications industry has been going on for years. Local number portability and long-distance wars over revenue sharing. When the environment was heavily regulated, there was a guaranteed return for telecommunication providers.
“We have moved away from that framework and need to find a mechanism to ensure robust investment yet maintain access for all Canadians. Guaranteeing access is critical to our long-term economic prosperity in the knowledge economy.
“If we start choking Internet access, we run the risk of limiting free speech.”