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Editorials Globe editorial: Net neutrality is worth preserving

If you sign up for a mobile internet service in Portugal or Spain, you'll be able to use your cellphone to view all kinds of content, just like in Canada. But it may cost you more to access some apps than others, or viewing them may require a higher cost package – which is not how it works in Canada.

That's because Spain, Portugal and many other countries have not enshrined net neutrality.

Essentially, net neutrality is the idea that all websites should be treated equally by those who own the pipes through which the internet runs, regardless of content, provenance or ownership.

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Canada strongly adheres to the principle. Our regime, outlined in a series of CRTC rulings over the past decade, is sometimes described as a world leader. It means that companies like Rogers and Bell, which sell internet services, can't favour their own content, or that of companies that might pay them a premium to do so, by making it download more quickly and effectively, at the expense of the content of competitors or those who otherwise decline to pay to the pipe owner.

The United States has also been a stout proponent of net neutrality, but that's about to change. While President Donald Trump has flipped and flopped on all manner of priorities, his administration hasn't wavered on killing net neutrality. This is happening. And that's a problem.

So far, the government of Canada is not reconsidering its position – Industry Minister Navdeep Bains is emphatic on that point. Good thing, too. On balance, the policy has been a success and should be defended vigorously, even if the impending U.S. move ends up building pressure on the CRTC to consider changes.

But networks being what they are, even small changes in the U.S. can affect Canadian internet users. At the very least, the Federal Communications Commission is opening the door to a world where major American-based telecommunications companies can become far more powerful.

In an environment where tech companies know more about us than the government does, and calls to regulate the internet as a public utility are multiplying, the FCC is resolutely marching in the opposite direction.

Essentially, ending net neutrality will give internet gatekeepers the freedom to charge for prioritized access to their subscribers, and to lessen or choke off the flow for those who can't or won't pay up.

What users see, and how much it costs them, will in theory be up to their internet service provider (ISP).

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That could well have implications for Canadian businesses that cater to U.S. customers, and vice versa. Burgeoning companies depend on equal access to build an audience or a customer base. In the most apocalyptic scenario envisioned by net neutrality advocates, thousands upon thousands of new companies would disappear or never get off the ground.

In this new world, giants like Amazon, Facebook and Netflix might end having to pay broadband providers for access to eyeballs. Smaller players have no such luxury, and they're scared. E-commerce depends on speedy, stable access. Increasing costs and adding a dollop of uncertainty could end up representing death by a thousand cuts for untold numbers of existing businesses.

A former Google engineer, Yonatan Zunger, recently proposed a small-business hypothetical to illustrate the latter point: Imagine a store owner receives a demand from an internet provider for $400 per month to maintain high-speed consumer access to her site during the pre-holiday rush. It's not a business-killing amount, but nor is it avoidable if the business wants to enjoy healthy holiday sales. It's like having your business held for ransom.

The online advertising business also stands to be disrupted if ISPs begin fast-tracking access to some sites, and slowing down access to others. That could create a cascading effect in dozens of ad-supported industries, and not just in the U.S.

There are also privacy implications. As University of Ottawa internet law expert Michael Geist pointed out recently, the U.S. has stripped away safeguards on data collection by service providers. And civil liberties advocates on both sides of the border point to past instances of ISPs censoring content they didn't like or agree with.

The argument against net neutrality holds that regulation inhibits innovation and investment on the part of telecos. Another argument in favour of new rules says that ISPs will follow net neutrality anyhow, because customers will demand it.

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There may be truth in the second point. Some American ISPs have explicitly pledged to essentially uphold the status quo. But several haven't, and unlike in Canada, no one is going to force them to.

On the plus side, the U.S. rule change could chase venture capital and startups into friendlier jurisdictions, like ours. Canada's rules may prove to be a competitive advantage.

So far, nobody's business model has been changed – yet. And it's possible that nothing cataclysmic will happen after the U.S. gives telecos the option of ending content neutrality.

But the U.S. is setting what looks to be a very bad precedent. America is the center of the digital universe, and choices made there have an influence, and an impact, far beyond its borders.

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