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The Globe and Mail

The public is right to be cynical of Internet usage regulators

The government has told the CRTC to go back to the drawing board on its Internet metering decision. The Liberals and NDP have blasted the regulators, too.

And yet remaining defenders of the decision cling to the argument that someone has to pay for Internet infrastructure, so why not let it be the bandwidth hogs among us?

To be still making that the basic issue is to have missed the citizens' revolt of the past week, a backlash far beyond the wonky specifics of how many gigabytes are too many or too pricey.

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Someone indeed has to pay for Internet infrastructure. Our phone and Internet bills have run higher than in most other countries. Unfortunately, we don't know what we've purchased, because what's been built, what still needs to be built, and what that might cost is a secret kept between the big telecoms and the CRTC.

This week, we heard small Internet service providers say that what the big telecoms want to charge for "extra" gigabytes used is 10, even 100 times more than the actual cost. Big telecoms also have other motivations to discourage you from downloading Netflix - by charging a lot, they can then offer a discount on their own movie download products. Or nudge you back to their broadcast television properties.

So how much is too much to charge? Sadly, as we've learned, the CRTC itself can only base its decisions on cost estimates provided by the big telecoms, because there is so little independent auditing in this area. We won't know until what a Globe and Mail editorial called the "black box" of Internet infrastructure costs is opened to public view. Then maybe we'll know why South Koreans pay a fraction of the cost for 10 times the bandwidth we get here.

Now to the second half of the argument: Why not let the bandwidth hogs among us pay more? My response would be, Who are you calling a hog? We are entering a multimedia world where sharing ever-bigger files - whether they be high-resolution photos of the grandkids, films from Netflix or the NFB or YouTube - is increasingly just part of life. A people's creative edge resides in its ability to share and manipulate such digital content. That's why other nations have managed to ensure more competitive, cheaper and varied ways to buy bandwidth.

Last week, the Stop the Meter petition surpassed 400,000 signatures, and it is still growing. Canadians have clearly signalled that they don't trust the big telecoms' motivations, don't believe the CRTC acts in the consumers' interest and don't see enough competitive choice among Internet providers in the "converged" oligopoly the CRTC helped create.

The very way in which we address these issues needs profound reform, to be opened to the light of debate and scrutiny. Until then, the regulators of Canada's digital future have lost the public trust.

David Beers is Editor of The Tyee.

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