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Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski speaks at the Brookings Institution on September 21, 2009 in Washington, DC. The Brookings Institution hosted a discussion on improving broadband and mobile communications.Mark Wilson/Getty Images

U.S. regulators want to lay down new rules to ensure that Internet traffic is treated equally, a move that could put pressure on the CRTC to do the same in Canada.

Acting on President Barack Obama's campaign pledge to keep the Internet an open and neutral technology, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission outlined a plan that would require Internet service providers (ISPs) to provide equal access to all legal online content and be more transparent with consumers about how they manage their networks.

"Greater transparency will give consumers the confidence of knowing that they're getting the service they've paid for, enable innovators to make their offerings work effectively over the Internet, and allow policy makers to ensure that broadband providers are preserving the Internet as a level playing field," FCC chair Julius Genachowski said in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington yesterday.

His proposal - to codify and enforce some general principles of "Net neutrality" - comes as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is expected to release its own position this fall, after public consultations this summer that prompted feedback from tens of thousands of Canadians.

"The kinds of principles that the FCC is now looking to put into rules are precisely what the CRTC heard from many groups this past summer," said Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa professor who holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law. "The kinds of concerns that Canadians have been expressing have clearly been taken to heart by the FCC."

In general terms, Net neutrality refers to the concept that access to all legal content on the Internet should be equal. The concept often comes up in relation to the practice of "bandwidth throttling," where ISPs limit the transfer speed of certain kinds of data - such as the transfer of large movie files between users - but not other kinds.

Many large Canadian ISPs have argued that network management doesn't affect Net neutrality, and taking away an ISP's ability to manage its network results in worse service for a large number of customers.

Currently, there is no uniform practice among large ISPs in Canada when it comes to network management. Some firms throttle bandwidth during certain times of the day, whereas other limit bandwidth all the time, or not at all. A CRTC ruling this fall could go a long way toward implementing a uniform code for all ISPs.

"In light of what we've seen today, [the CRTC ruling]will be particularly telling because the benchmark now isn't just what the CRTC heard during this hearing, the benchmark now is our neighbours to the south," Prof. Geist said. "The CRTC will in many ways be measured up against what the FCC is doing in the U.S."

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