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If the internet isn’t free, neither are we

How the FCC's decision to nix net neutrality in the US affects us all as students and Canadians
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On December 14, 2017, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted three against two to repeal net neutrality laws introduced during Barack Obama’s presidency.

FCC chief Ajit Pai, one of three Republican members of the five-person panel, had proposed the repeal of net neutrality on November 21, 2017, stating that the current rules were overly restrictive for consumer and service providers and did not allow them to offer different tiers of internet service.

Put simply, net neutrality requires internet providers to treat all online data in the same way and not discriminate based on content, source, or platform. As such, it protects internet freedom and preserves user agency. It ensures that profit-driven providers do not block or slow down traffic to certain websites or apps, and that users and developers are not required to pay more to gain access to content posted online. Without net neutrality in place, US telecommunications giants like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon can effectively become gatekeepers of entertainment and information, gaining the ability to demand more money for faster internet, as long as the companies state that they are doing so beforehand.

The repeal of net neutrality might affect Canadian internet users as well. For instance, Canadians might have to pay extra for their favourite US-based streaming services like Spotify and Netflix, as those companies in turn will have to pay more to stay in the US internet providers’ fast lanes.

More concerningly, unbeknownst to many Canadians, Bell Canada, one of the country’s leading internet providers, is also pushing to repeal net neutrality. According to CANADALAND, Bell recently submitted a proposal to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). If approved, this proposal would allow Bell to create an organization called the Internet Piracy Review Agency (IPRA), which, in alliance with US movie studios and broadcasters, would blacklist certain websites on the grounds of combating piracy. Bell’s proposal has since been endorsed by Cineplex, and Rogers is also considering granting it support. However, given Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent affirmation in favour of net neutrality, it seems unlikely that the CRTC will accept Bell’s proposal.

Nonetheless, Pai’s proposal has understandably thrown the internet into an uproar. Users have flooded various social networking sites, urging American internet users to file complaints with the FCC or to contact their local senators or representatives in Congress. Those who were hesitant to go through those probably long and arduous processes were implored to text a service line and to sign a widely circulated petition to ensure that net neutrality remained in place.

Raising various defences to his actions, Pai has stated that repealing net neutrality “is not going to destroy the Internet,” is “not going to end the Internet as we know [it],” is “not going to kill democracy,” and is “not going to stifle free expression online.” These statements ring hollow given that before net neutrality rules were established by the FCC in 2015, telecommunications companies took advantage of the lack of regulation.

From 2007–2009, AT&T, which then had the exclusive rights to sell iPhones, forced Apple to block Skype to avoid competition. In 2010, digital subscriber line provider Windstream Communications started redirecting search results made from the Google toolbar to Windstream’s own search engine. In 2011, wireless carrier MetroPCS announced that it would only allow streaming from YouTube over its 4G network. In 2012, Verizon blocked its mobile customers from using mobile hotspot applications, forcing them to pay Verizon’s $20 tethering fee.

From 2011 to 2013, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon blocked mobile payment systems — Google Wallet being a notable one — since they competed with Isis Wallet, a mobile payment app backed by the three companies. In 2012, AT&T blocked FaceTime from its iPhones unless customers subscribed to a more expensive text-and-voice plan.

All these instances highlight that the repeal of net neutrality will hinder competition rather than promote it. In 2015, the FCC forced telecommunications companies to stop blocking services, and net neutrality rules demanded that they start being transparent and stop paid prioritization and unreasonable interference. Now that the rules are no longer in place, telecommunications companies have free reign to block websites and apps that offer services in direct competition with their own, be they search engines, mobile wallets, voice and video calling apps, or music and video streaming services.

It should also be noted that Pai formerly held the position of Associate General Counsel at Verizon, one of the giants that stands to benefit from the repeal of net neutrality laws. Given this, one might wonder whether Pai is really acting in consumers’ best interests or whether he has ulterior motives.

We are living in a time when internet communication and open access to information is necessary to fact-check every statement made by the President of the United States, to mobilize movements and protests, and to decry and spread awareness of injustice in public forums. Accordingly, the loss of net neutrality is potentially devastating given the possibility that telecommunications companies will deliberately withhold information from users in order to turn a profit.

Despite Trudeau’s support of net neutrality, it is worth noting that Canada could hypothetically meet the same fate as the US on the matter. Bell has violated rules of net neutrality in the past: it was forced to amend the pricing model for its mobile TV app after the CRTC found that Bell allowed consumers to use its mobile TV app for longer durations than other mobile streaming services without incurring extra charges. Bell was also sued for throttling internet speeds in 2008.

It would be dangerous for the CRTC to approve Bell’s proposal to create an organization able to block websites on grounds of piracy — the websites that the proposal would apply to could very well be those websites in direct competition with Bell’s services. This concern arises whether or not the claims of piracy are justified. It should be noted that when Verizon blocked Google Wallet from its smartphones, it tried to use “security concerns” as a guise for preventing other wallets from competing with AT&T, T-Mobile, and the Verizon-backed Isis Wallet.

In today’s political landscape, and given that students rely so heavily on the internet to stay informed, it is nettling to find it held captive by corporations — especially given that much content on the internet is created and distributed through US-based channels. One source of potential relief, however, is that US internet providers will probably not block numerous websites or slow down surfing speeds at once — it is more likely that customers will be eased into a system of multi-tier service, meaning American internet users will likely not see a drastic change in the quality of their internet coverage anytime soon. Given that the FCC is being sued by multiple US state attorneys, the hope is that net neutrality will be reinstated before that time comes.

Zeahaa Rehman is a third-year student at UTM studying Linguistics and Professional Writing.