Until recently, net neutrality was a difficult issue to explain at a dinner party. It was even more of a struggle to get anybody worked up about it. Now, thanks to the major Internet service providers (ISPs) Comcast and Bell-Sympatico, the stakes are crystal clear and the acrid scent of a smoking gun hangs in the room.
In October, the Associated Press ran a series of tests that demonstrated that U.S. broadband provider Comcast was interfering with its customers' ability to download files stored on what are called peer-to-peer (P2P) networks.
In Canada, a forum supervisor for Bell-Sympatico has admitted the Canadian carrier does likewise.
So what? Peer-to-peer? Customer interference? Read on.
Peer-to-peer networks allow Internet-connected computers to distribute the burden of storing and transferring honking big digital files. Those files are often, but not always, music and videos. You might have also heard of it as sharing files via BitTorrent.
You might also have heard that BitTorrent is only used by scofflaws, pedophiles, university students and pirates illegally swapping Hollywood movies, pictures of naked children and Dan Hill tunes. So, at first glance, you might say, "Hey, what the carriers did makes sense. I mean, why should bandwidth-sucking evildoers who like sappy folk ballads get to download a metric buttload of pornography and bad music, all the while slowing things down for the rest of us?"
That's exactly what the carriers want you to think. But, that's just so wrong on so many levels. Let me explain.
BitTorrenting is not a crime
While pirating music and movies is illegal, using BitTorrent or peer-to-peer sharing isn't. For example, I use BitTorrent to download Creative Commons-licensed videos from miro.com, as do thousands of other law-abiding, non-pirating individuals.
Content from National Geographic, Lionsgate Films, MTV, Dow Jones and the Discovery Channel is available online via BitTorrent, legally. And, lots of large but legal downloads of medical x-rays, unmixed music tracks, raw footage for documentaries, etc., take place everyday via peer-to-peer, and nobody is breaking the law.
So the equation BitTorrent = pirate doesn't hold water. And, major ISPs in Canada and the U.S. know this. They're just trying to scare and co-opt naive North Americans who think peer-to-peer is the Devil's handiwork. Sort of the way George Bush used the threat of terrorism to invade Iraq.
Not only wrong, but clumsy
Second, peer-to-peer blocking isn't an exact science. In fact, Comcast in the U.S. stepped in it big time when their peer-to-peer blocking schemes stopped businesses from exchanging Lotus Notes data. Big mistake.
So, not only is it true that many P2P users are engaged in perfectly legal acts, folks who aren't even using P2P are getting caught in the arc of a blunt instrument.
Who are the telephonies?
Third, it's not just peer-to-peer sharers and Lotus Notes users who are getting bludgeoned. Other carriers in Canada have been accused of degrading Internet phone calls. Internet telephony, also called Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) lets you make long distance calls dirt cheap. VOIP services like Skype and the Gizmo Project allow international computer-to-computer calls for free.
Why would carriers throttle VOIP traffic on their networks? They claim it sucks bandwidth but, again, that's a clever smokescreen.
Canadian carriers like Rogers and Shaw offer their own VOIP services. Those VOIP services also take bandwidth, but don't get throttled.
And last year, VOIP provider Vonage complained that broadband (and VOIP) provider Shaw was charging customers a $10 per month "quality of service enhancement" fee for the privilege of using non-Shaw VOIP providers. In other words, a non-Shaw VOIP tax.
Is it in the carriers' best interest to allow upstart cheap phone companies like Skype or Vonage to suck up bandwidth with its inexpensive and excellent service? Nope, but in a free market and a neutral Internet, upstarts happen. The traditional players just don't like it much and want the nonsense to stop.
That takes us back to peer-to-peer. Why? Because the truth is, Rogers, Shaw and Bell-Sympatico want to start offering you video over the Internet -- also called IPTV (Internet Protocol Television). NBC is already starting this with hulu, which distributes primetime shows online (to U.S. residents only -- that's so cable). But soon Canadian networks will want to send you their content, on their terms, over their networks. And what's a great way for them to distribute that content? Peer-to-peer and BitTorrent.
So, when you and I use BitTorrent we're bandwidth-hogging criminals. When the carriers use it, it's just good business. When Shaw and Rogers offer VOIP, it's smooth and clear. When competitors do, it degrades badly or you get up-charged so it won't devolve to stuttering static. When we use lots of bandwidth, the carriers complain we're degrading the service for everyone. Yet, somehow, when they want to, the bandwidth will be there. Odd how it works.
But the problem runs deeper still.
Pearl Jam (and others) jammed
In the past few years, broadband carriers in North America have:
- Prevented the abortion rights group Naral Pro-Choice America from getting a "short code" that would allow them to send text messages to supporters. (Verizon, 2007)
- Cut off the webcast of a Pearl Jam concert just when lead singer Eddie Vedder was critical of U.S. President George Bush. (AT&T, 2007)
- Blocked e-mails critical of a pay-to-send e-mail plan. (Time Warner/AOL, 2006)
- Blocked customers from accessing a website sympathetic to the Telecommunications Works Union during a strike. (Telus, 2005)
These incidents and others have raised the concern of net neutrality advocates. Why? Because they suggest that as well as blocking access to peer-to-peer sharing, throttling bandwidth and degrading competing VOIP services, carriers are also keen on controlling the content that's flowing through the web. They'd like it to be their content.
"The carriers have a myriad of conflicts of interest," says Steve Anderson, the co-ordinator of the Campaign for Democratic Media. "They have popular websites or they own television stations, so it's in their interest to get traffic to them. If they allow P2P sharing and people are watching shows that way, it's likely they're not watching shows from Rogers."
Alt video quality like filmstrips 'caught in a projector'
How could that affect you?
Here's an example. Right now the Canadian online news service The Real News (which I've done work with) provides daily video news that asks tough and uncomfortable questions about business and politics worldwide. Being video-based, it consumes bandwidth, and lots of it.
It is within the power of Canadian carriers to say, "We'd rather folks watch the news our partners provide, so we'll just throttle back the speed of access for The Real News." They could choke off or degrade your access to an alternative viewpoint.
Or, let's move closer to home. Right now, rabble.ca (where this story first ran) is developing rabble tv, an Internet video version of rabble.ca. Canadian carriers could make rabble tv stutter and jump like a filmstrip caught in a projector.
Or, they could offer The Real News and rabble tv a chance to get out from underneath that throttling, if we were willing to pay more to get back on the fast lane of access -- just like mobsters shaking down shopkeepers for protection money.
That's what's called the tiered Internet. And, that's what carriers would like to see. It's an Internet where the big players get the high road and everyone else gets the slow dirt path. That's the opposite of a neutral net where the carriers don't control or discriminate against the traffic they carry. But, it's exactly the way cable companies have always run their businesses. Why should today be different from yesterday?
Are they allowed to do this? Not really.
Thou shalt not play favourites...
Section 27(2) of the Canadian Telecommunications Act says: "No Canadian carrier shall, in relation to the provision of a telecommunications service or the charging of a rate for it, unjustly discriminate or give an undue or unreasonable preference toward any person, including itself, or subject any person to an undue or unreasonable disadvantage."
That's stronger than U.S. legislation, at least in theory, but so far neither the CRTC nor the government in general has enforced it when it comes to net neutrality issues.
The carriers say they would never discriminate based on content. But, they are starting. And, more to the point, they have also consistently denied that they throttle bandwidth and target peer-to-peer sharing. We now know they do. We have the smoking gun. So, when it comes to net neutrality, they're not to be trusted. And, they've only just started.
Judging from what's happened to date, the government doesn't much care. If you do, here's what you can do right now. Head over to neutrality.ca and sign their petition. It's easy, and, best of all, it doesn't take much bandwidth.
Related Tyee stories:
- To Censor Pro-Union Web Site, Telus Blocked 766 Others Company's labour dispute tactic may affect internet speech law.
- Telus Cleanses Image on YouTube Take-down of pro-union films angers Internet speech advocates.
- Canada Sleeps Through War to 'Save the Internet' Digital democracy at risk if telecoms get their way say opponents.