Okay, wag your finger at China all you want over Internet censorship in Tibet – then clench your fingers into a fist over how your very own Canadian service providers, Rogers and Bell, are limiting what you can access online.
It’s not the same as China’s blocking of YouTube and the BBC, but now that Bell and Rogers have admitted they are slowing online connections, it should make you very afraid.
Confirming what many had suspected for a year now, Bell last week was forced to admit that users of popular peer-to-peer software like BitTorrent, which facilitates quick, efficient sharing of large files, were having their connections slowed on its network during peak hours between 4 pm and 2 am. (Rogers engages in the same practice.)
Bell claims it’s necessary to “traffic-shape” because a small clutch of “bandwidth hogs” illegally sharing music and movies are clogging the pipeline for everyone else.
Bell’s decision plays into the popular spin promoted by Hollywood and the major record labels that everyone using BitTorrent is a thief.
Unfortunately, the effect of this decision was not limited to Bell Sympatico customers. Third-party ISPs that rent bandwidth on Bell’s network – Bell owns most of the Internet telephone line infrastructure, Rogers most of the cable – had to field a tidal wave of angry calls from customers whose connection had been slowed to a crawl as well.
And now a delicious twist. Just as this story was picking up steam, the CBC, our public broadcaster, came up with the fantastic idea of making an episode of its popular, taxpayer-funded Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister available on the Net unencumbered by digital rights management (DRM) via BitTorrent. It was offered on Sunday, March 23. (Why this has only happened now and only as a one-off is a question for another day.)
Not only does the Mothercorp’s move highlight the legitimacy of Internet distribution methods like BitTorrent, but it also unmasks the spin that it’s used only for illegal files. We’re talking CBC fans here, after all.
However, while thousands of fans downloaded the show, many complained about how long it took – for some as much as 11 hours. So here you have a private mega-corp, Bell, choking the flow of content from our public broadcaster to the very people who own the content.
“People are free to choose whatever application they want to use,’’ says Bell spokesperson Jason Laszlo. “But we need to ensure that our customers’ email and other popular applications like YouTube can be accessed easily.’’
Still, the implications of this move were not lost on the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), which fired off a letter this week to the CRTC calling on the regulator to ensure that the fundamentals of Net neutrality are protected.
Attempts to choke and censor the information superhighway have been in NUPGE’s crosshairs since 2005, when Telus blocked subscribers’ access to the website of striking Telus workers in BC and Alberta. “This issue can lead to lots of very serious implications down the road, the Telus example being the most troubling one of limiting access,” says NUPGE national rep Len Bush.
(Telus rep Shawn Hall tells NOW the company no longer shapes info flow.)
Asks Bush, “Will Rogers or Bell in the future tolerate, for example, a documentary exposé on their company that is distributed over their network?” The phone lines are theirs, right? Well, not exactly. “People forget that the Canadian government massively funded the creation of the Internet and has put huge investments into building and maintaining the infrastructure,” says Bush.
“Many of these big telcos started out as Crown corporations or government-sponsored monopolies.”
Not to mention that most telephone poles and underground cables run on public lands and are often maintained by public utilities.
The problem is that a few large companies deciding what content gets faster access is only half the story. “A non-neutral Net will cut the diversity of voices available out there,” says Rabble.ca columnist Wayne MacPhail.
He’s concerned that traffic-choking will slow down progressive political content like the new tv.rabble.ca. “It isn’t too early to be worried. Will our bandwidth be throttled?”
And if so, could Rabble, or the CBC for that matter, do anything about it?
“It isn’t clear whether anyone would have any recourse at all,” says David Fewer of the University of Ottawa’s Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC). “ISPs have the right to manage their networks. People would be startled to discover what is buried in their service contract with their ISP. For one, Net neutrality is not guaranteed.”
Indeed, Bell’s claim that it needs to limit some high-bandwidth activity like BitTorrent because it doesn’t have the capacity is widely questioned. However, “because ISPs are proprietary, we have no way of proving what they say,” says Fewer.
One body that could compel the telcos to come clean on their bandwidth capacity is the CRTC. “We always cooperate with our federal regulators,’’ says Bell’s Laszlo.
CRTC rep Denis Carmel says the regulator is monitoring the situation but has no plans to take action. “We rely on complaints but haven’t received any on this issue,” he says. I guess we can only hope someone goes through the process. Says Steve Anderson, coordinator of the Campaign for Democratic Media, “These companies operate behind closed doors while the CRTC is asleep at the wheel. We need a big public hearing.”