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Globe editorial: In 2018, the fight for net neutrality must continue

Late last summer, Dana Barancik of Las Vegas, Nevada, and her father Frank filed comments in support of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's desire to do away with net neutrality.

Their submissions would have been entirely above suspicion had the former not died in 2014, and the latter in 2015, or if their letters had not contained the same boilerplate language as thousands of other apparently bogus filings.

The consultation process leading to the FCC's Dec. 14 vote to kill rules that ensure all internet traffic is treated equally, regardless of content or provenance, was seriously problematic, even fraudulent. And the decision itself was even worse.

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Critics in Congress plan to vote in early 2018 on at least two proposals to overrule the FCC decision, and either partly or wholly restore net neutrality. Canadians should hope they succeed.

In Canada, net neutrality is the long-standing policy of our equivalent of the FCC, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, and the desire to preserve it is largely shared by federal lawmakers from all parties. But when the country that is the centre of the global internet abruptly changes course, we risk being swamped by its wake.

Why does net neutrality matter? Start with the pocketbook issues: Without net neutrality, consumers could be faced with paying their internet service provider to access some otherwise free websites, or they could be entirely deprived of the chance to see some content, because the websites that carry it won't or can't pay ISPs.

An unfettered web also constitutes a key vehicle for the dissemination of Canadian cultural products which, coincidentally, is the subject of a wide-ranging CRTC consultation that wraps up on Jan. 31.

The broadcast regulator is pondering the future of Canadian programming, which has become inextricably tied to the digital world. It's just one of the major culture policy revisions slated for 2018, another being a long-awaited revamp of the Copyright Act.

What does this have to with net neutrality?

The transition to digital delivery of music, television and films continues – via streaming and other means – and it is taking up more and more of the space long occupied by traditional broadcasters.

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Governments may have little affection for companies like Netflix, but the fact is they have become serious financiers of Canadian projects.

As University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist summarized in a recent submission to the CRTC, "foreign financing now contributes more toward English-language television production than the licensing fees paid by private or public broadcasters, federal tax credits, Canadian distributors, and the Canadian Media Fund."

According to data released by the country's music copyright collectives, the surge in revenues from streaming over the past five years makes Canada's music market one of the fastest-growing in the world.

Net neutrality keeps that ecosystem vibrant, by preventing internet service providers from "fast-laning" their own or their partners' content, and throttling sites and products that aren't willing to pay to play.

Prof. Geist is right to call on the CRTC to drop the "walled garden" approach to regulation in favour of a consumer-oriented approach to maintain affordable internet access and other measures "that foster increased global competitiveness of Canadian services and creators."

It may also be time to do away with the long-standing cash cow that is simultaneous substitution – U.S. programming shown with Canadian commercials – and for the CRTC to create incentives for broadcasters to carry content produced in Canada. The more programming moves from cable to the internet, the less the old model makes sense.

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And then there's the big telecos' proposal to create a federal black list for content blocking. The ostensible justification is combatting piracy, but there's a risk sites will be added indiscriminately, and the free flow of information will be interfered with – precisely what net neutrality aims to prevent. If piracy is the problem, we should rely on Canada's robust laws against intellectual property theft.

It's a lot of take in, but here's a guiding principle: The exigencies of the digital economy dictate nothing will be possible if the internet does not remain neutral for Canadians.

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