Canada’s net neutrality

The Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission - also known as the CRTC (also known as the federal Crown corporation that should probably change its name already to reflect the times) - waded into the net neutrality debate last week and handed down a remarkably even-handed ruling that will dictate how the Internet is delivered and consumed in this country.

On one side of the debate are the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telecommunications companies that own the network, and that are spending huge amounts of money to expand it and upgrade its capabilities to keep up with demand.

On the other side are all the organizations, businesses and users that worry what ISPs will do with the power to throttle traffic, whether that means shutting down grass roots websites through a pay-to-play system, or charging websites based on traffic - ensuring that only the companies with the deepest pockets will be able to afford to have a presence on the web, thereby limiting free speech.

Previously, the CRTC ruled, grudgingly, that ISPs should be allowed to throttle or shape traffic during peak periods to maintain the integrity of severely stressed networks (e.g. by slowing access to torrent, movie and television download sites in favour of other types of traffic) although the CRTC also said they would be watching the ISPs closely for abuses. Since media companies themselves are hardly neutral and either offer some of these services themselves or through partners, the worry is that they will use shaping to enhance their own services while crippling others, or throttle third party ISPs that rent space on their networks to look faster by comparison.

The latest ruling upholds an ISP's right to throttle traffic, but forces them to be transparent about their activities and post all the relevant information online. Throttling can only be used as a last resort according to the CRTC, and the ISPs will now have to disclose when and how they shape traffic.

ISPs also have to post information about what they are doing to expand their networks in order to justify their claims about the expenses associated with unlimited downloading.

Additionally, the ruling encourages the ISPs try to recoup costs from heavy downloaders, something that has proved difficult in the past, as an alternative to throttling.

There are no details how this might work, but it could be similar to data plans purchased by cell phone users where you pay a flat rate to download a preset amount of information and have to pay extra for additional bandwidth use. If you're downloading a movie a day you might end up paying more than the average person who uses the web for e-mail and checking Facebook.

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