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What the U.S. net-neutrality repeal means for Americans and Canadians

Net neutrality advocates rally in front of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ahead of the vote repealing so-called net neutrality rules in Washington on Dec. 13, 2017.

YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS

Now that the U.S. federal government has rolled back the internet protections it put in place two years ago, the big question is: What does the repeal of "net neutrality" rules mean to you?

In the short term, the answer is simple: not much. But over time, your ability to watch what you want to watch online and to use the apps that you prefer could start to change.

If you live in the United States, your mobile carrier, for instance, might start offering you terrific deals for signing up to its own video service, just as your YouTube app starts suffering unexpected connection errors. Or you could wake one day to learn that your broadband provider is having a tiff with Amazon, and has slowed down its shopping site in order to extract business concessions.

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All of which would be perfectly legal under the new deregulatory regime approved Thursday by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, so long as the companies post their policies online. Broadband providers insist they won't do anything that harms the "internet experience" for consumers.

WHAT HAPPENED

On Thursday, the FCC repealed Obama-era "net neutrality" rules, junking the long-time principle that all web traffic must be treated equally. The move represents a radical departure from more than a decade of federal oversight.

The big telecommunications companies had lobbied hard to overturn the rules, contending they are heavy-handed and discourage investment in broadband networks.

"What is the FCC doing today?" asked FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican. "Quite simply, we are restoring the light-touch framework that has governed the internet for most of its existence."

Under the new rules approved Thursday, companies like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T would be free to slow down or block access to services they don't like. They could also charge higher fees to rivals and make them pay up for higher transmission speeds, or set up "fast lanes" for their preferred services – in turn, relegating everyone else to "slow lanes."

Those possibilities have stirred fears among consumer advocates, Democrats, many web companies and ordinary Americans afraid that the cable and phone giants will be able to control what people see and do online.

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WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

In the near term, experts believe that providers will stay on their best behaviour. In part, that's because inevitable legal challenges to the FCC's action will keep the spotlight on them.

Public-interest groups such as Free Press and Public Knowledge have said they'll be involved in litigation against Mr. Pai's rules. New York's attorney-general vowed to lead a multistate lawsuit; the attorneys-general of Massachusetts and Washington state also announced plans to sue.

"The fact that Chairman Pai went through with this, a policy that is so unpopular, is somewhat shocking," said Mark Stanley, a spokesman for the civil liberties organization Demand Progress. "Unfortunately, not surprising."

Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said he would introduce legislation to overturn the FCC's action, restoring the previous net-neutrality rules. That move, however, could face tough opposition, given that Republicans control both houses of Congress.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR CANADIANS?

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At first blush, not much. Canada has firm protections for net neutrality in place and political support for the rules is strong.

"Net neutrality is one of the critical issues of our times, much like freedom of the press and freedom of expression before it," Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said Thursday after the FCC decision. "That's why our government has a strong net-neutrality framework in place."

Canadian telecom legislation passed in 1993 contains a provision barring internet providers from giving themselves or anyone else an "undue preference" and in 2009, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission – Canada's counterpart to the FCC – instituted a rule limiting internet traffic-management practices such as slowing down or blocking content. Earlier this year, the CRTC issued a blanket policy that bars internet and wireless providers from offering free or discounted data for only certain types of content.

Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has also affirmed this stance in her review of Canadian cultural policy, saying in September that "we will continue to champion the internet as a progressive force and an open space without barriers. As a government, we stand by the principle of net neutrality."

Rogers Communications Inc. – one of Canada's largest internet and media companies – said it also supports Canada's net-neutrality framework.

"We do not believe that policy changes in the United States will have an impact on Canadians' access to U.S.-based websites or services," the Toronto-based company said in a statement Thursday.

But some warn that Canadians could still feel the effects of the change in U.S. policy. Internet advocacy group OpenMedia contends that if popular U.S. internet services – such as Netflix – are forced to pay more for priority speeds south of the border, they will pass that cost on to users outside the country as well. Plus, while the Canadian framework for net neutrality appears solid now, the government has announced plans to review both the Telecommunications and Broadcasting Acts over the next few years.

Michael Geist, Canada research chair in internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, noted in a recent Globe and Mail column that since Canadian internet traffic often transits through the U.S., there are concerns that Canadian data could get caught by non-neutral policies. Moreover, he says Canadian internet services hoping to attract U.S. customers may face demands for payments to have their content delivered on the fast track.

Tobi Lutke, CEO of Shopify Inc., one of Canada's largest online companies, also criticized the changes, saying Friday, "This decision hurts small businesses and primarily benefits mega-corporations. We will do whatever we can to prevent the negative impact of this myopic decision on the hundreds of thousands of small businesses and entrepreneurs who rely on Shopify."

ONCE THE KLIEG LIGHTS FADE

Things could be different assuming the U.S. rules survive legal and congressional challenges.

AT&T senior executive vice-president Bob Quinn said in a blog post that the internet "will continue to work tomorrow just as it always has." Like other broadband providers, AT&T said it won't block websites and won't throttle or degrade online traffic based on content.

But such things have happened before. The Associated Press in 2007 found Comcast was blocking some file-sharing services. AT&T blocked Skype and other internet calling services – which competed with its voice-call business – from the iPhone until 2009.

Thursday's rule change also eliminates certain federal consumer protections, bars state laws that contradict the FCC's approach, and largely transfers oversight of internet service to another agency with relatively little experience in telecommunications policy, the Federal Trade Commission.

Angelo Zino, an analyst at CFRA Research, said he expects AT&T and Verizon to be the biggest beneficiaries because the two internet giants can now give priority to the movies, TV shows and other videos or music they provide to viewers. That could hurt rivals such as Sling TV, Amazon, YouTube or startups yet to be born.

With files from Christine Dobby

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