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Does Internet-billing decision make Canada ‘a digital backwater?’

Opposition parties are taking a stand against Internet metering after Industry Minister Tony Clement signaled he is probing a CRTC decision expected to raise the cost of using the web.

The Liberals and New Democrats are both pledging to overturn the telecom regulator's "usage-based billing" ruling that effectively kills "unlimited" Internet usage plans.

NDP digital affairs critic Charlie Angus is also calling for further action beyond reversing the CRTC decision to protect consumers already being hit by downloading caps.

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"What are we? A digital backwater?"

Mr. Angus said Canadian consumers are being held hostage by a small number of big Internet providers who dominate the web access industry.

"We don't have a market. We have a Family Compact," the New Democrat said, referring to the elites who used to control Upper Canada in the early 19th century.

"And we have a CRTC that acts as a short order cook for that Family Compact."

The CRTC ruling triggered widespread outrage among consumer groups. It's also prompted a backlash from small business owners who warn it will thwart their ability to use online services such as video and online teleconferencing.

The controversy is a good cause for opposition parties looking for publicity and donations.

"We're taking a stand with you against a bad policy that hurts consumers, stifles competition and innovation, and makes the Internet less open," the Liberal Party website says.

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"A donation, whatever the amount, is the best way to ensure the Liberal Party has the resources it needs to fight for an open and innovative internet environment."

Mr. Angus said big media companies – cable TV giants or telecom providers – have a conflict of interest in selling Internet access.

That's because Canadian consumers are increasingly turning to web-based TV and movie offerings such as the video-streaming service Netflix, which rapidly eats up consumers' Internet usage quotas.

"Your cable giant is also your cellphone provider and is also your TV dealer and their biggest threat is Netflix and other emerging Internet media," the NDP MP said.

"So if Netflix offers someone a better deal than Rogers the only thing Rogers has to do is put a billing cap on and you won't be on Netflix for very long."

In an interview Monday, Mr. Clement acknowledged the strong reaction to the CRTC ruling. "I am hearing from a lot of people who feel this will damage our economy," he said. "I have to be fair on these things – but I am hearing from people that they are worried this will stifle innovation because the cost of using Internet services will be prohibitively high."

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