The issue of net neutrality has been a hot-button topic recently. However, there still remains much discussion about what it is, what it’s supposed to do, and how the recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision will affect Canada. Here is everything you need to know.
What is net neutrality?
The term “net neutrality” refers to the set of rules implemented by the Obama administration in 2015 which ensured that internet service providers (ISPs) couldn’t selectively choose what could and could not be seen online. These rules also prevented internet service providers from price discriminating against competing content, which means charging internet users higher prices for some content and lower prices for other content. Essentially, these rules meant that consumers had free and open access to the entire internet upon log-in, with no special treatment for particular ISP-favoured content. The fundamental principle of net neutrality relates to the idea that all content should be treated equally in regard to transmission speeds or access.
What will the loss of net neutrality mean for Americans?
On December 14, 2017, the United States Federal Communications Commission, composed of three Republicans and two Democrats, voted to rescind net neutrality. Experts argue that the loss of net neutrality will mean that telecom giants and ISPs like Comcast or AT&T could become even more powerful, since they will be able create premium fast lanes that could facilitate access to their own in-house content. In essence, this means that ISPs could now provide decreased transmission speeds through “slow lanes” for competing sites, which would unfairly disadvantage some sites as faster platforms will likely be preferred over slower ones. Ultimately, this allows for the possibility of preferential treatment of different sites by ISPs. For example, Comcast could theoretically favour its NBC subsidiary by making online access to NBC content quicker, attracting more site traffic and in turn increasing revenue.
What will the loss of net neutrality mean for Canadians?
According to Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Navdeep Bains, Canada is firm about upholding the pillars of net neutrality such as openness, fairness, and freedom, regardless of the actions of other jurisdictions. He commented, “I believe there should be no gatekeepers deciding which sites you get access to based on either different pricing regimes or speeds.”
Currently, Canada’s policy actions have supported Bains’s claims. In 2017, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) banned internet providers from excusing particular forms of online content such as streamed music and videos from wireless data caps, further strengthening Canada’s net neutrality regulations. However, the FCC’s decision to eliminate net neutrality in the U.S. could still potentially impact Canadians accessing online content from U.S. sites, such as streaming sites and social media platforms. Since many of the online services Canadians use are based on U.S. servers and internet traffic still has to digitally cross borders, slower U.S. transmissions speeds could subsequently result in slower Canadian user experiences.
There is also the possibility that subscription fees paid by Canadians for online services like Netflix could increase if American ISPs (like Comcast and AT&T) convince companies to pay higher fees for internet “fast lanes”. This increased cost to online companies could be passed on to users via increased subscription or monthly fees. ISPs like Netflix could also be forced to pay special fees to get out of internet “slow lanes”; failure to pay up could result in slow, low-quality online content from these sites.
The effect on Canadians of the FCC’s decision to eliminate net neutrality is yet to be determined. The future may look bleak, but only time will reveal the consequences of this decision. For Canadians, one thing is for sure: the issue of net neutrality, and its values of openness, fairness, and freedom, is nothing to be neutral about.
Jasper Paredes is a 2019 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy & Governance, and holds a Bachelor of Health Studies degree in Health Policy from York University. His main policy interests include health policy, economic policy, and social policy. When he is not in the library, you can most likely find him playing soccer, drinking coffee at local cafes, or checking his fantasy basketball lineup.