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Harper steps into Web dispute Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is taking the unusual step of intervening in an ever mounting controversy over Internet billing.

Mr. Harper on Tuesday put more heft behind Industry Minister Tony Clement's decision to launch a probe of a regulatory decision that raises the cost of Internet service, announcing he, too, is second-guessing the ruling.

Mr. Harper's declaration is a strong signal that the Conservatives may reverse last week's decision by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, or at the very least ask the regulator to rethink it.

It's an unwelcome development for major Internet providers such as BCE Inc.'s Bell Canada, which have fought for years for the CRTC decision that effectively ends "unlimited" Internet download plans.

Mr. Harper signalled his unease using Twitter, a popular social media service.

"We're very concerned about CRTC's decision on usage-based billing and its impact on consumers. I've asked for a review of the decision," he said.

The Conservatives said the probe of the decision will be finished by or before March 1. The deadline came as the Commons industry committee voted to begin hearings on the matter and call witnesses including CRTC officials as early as this week.

A government official said Mr. Harper's intervention is meant to send a signal to Internet providers, consumers and civil servants that the prime minister takes the matter seriously.

Mr. Clement told reporters that the "decision on its face has some pretty severe impacts" for consumers and businesses.

As people access increasing numbers of videos and other large files through the Internet, major communications providers such as Shaw Communications Inc. and Bell have begun to regulate how much their customers can download - charging them extra when they exceed monthly limits. Many consumers have responded by turning to smaller Internet service providers that lease space on networks such as Bell's and offer popular "unlimited" plans without such caps.

The online campaign that put huge political pressure on the CRTC decision has its roots in June of 2007, when Steve Anderson started OpenMedia.ca after being involved in the so-called "net neutrality" debate in the United States. The debate quickly bubbled north.

Mr. Anderson, who wanted to work as an online video producer and was concerned about the regulatory state of Canada's Internet, started a splinter website called SaveOurNet.ca, which still devotes itself to net neutrality issues - which is, broadly, the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.

After the original CRTC decision on usage-based billing and an appeals process, OpenMedia began circulating a "StopTheMeter" petition in late October, 2010. There was an obvious lull over Christmas - when Mr. Anderson says he was surfing in Australia - but it picked up serious momentum after the final decision last week, and has grown from tens of thousands to around 300,000, with 30,000 signing just on Tuesday - the day after Mr. Clement said he would reexamine the decision.

"The campaign itself is demonstrating why this issue is so important. A lot of people are making videos now. Would they do this if they had to pay five times as much? Probably not," Mr. Anderson said. "It's looking like we might win this one."

The campaign also got a jolt of legitimacy from a formal, 27-page petition filed to cabinet by a lone computer consultant in Montreal. Jean-François Mezei, who runs Vaxination Informatique, stayed up late last Wednesday finishing a type of document more commonly filed by the lawyers and regulatory experts of large telecom companies like Bell and Telus. Mr. Mezei first got involved in 2008 at a protest against carriers being allowed to "throttle," or squeeze, their networks to control network congestion.

"This process has taken me now from a being a protester on Parliament Hill to successfully handing a petition to the governor in council. And it looks like the minister has gotten the hint that this needs to reversed," Mr. Mezei said.

He said he called Industry Canada on Tuesday and the bureaucrat answering the phone said that in 10 years at Industry he had never seen a document filed by an individual go so high.

"My petition was an enabler of this, rather than the cause. But it still feels good to feel like you're part of something big."

Bell's senior vice-president for regulatory affairs, Mirko Bibic, argued that the debate has become "emotional," and that independent Internet providers could offer unlimited downloads only because they didn't spent billions of dollars on their networks, like Bell. "When you invest zero, yeah, it's pretty easy to say the cost-per-gig or per-bit is small. But when you invest billions, you've got to generate a return," Mr. Bibic said.

 

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