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Government responsibility for internet extends beyond money

Nary a week goes by that the federal government isn’t making an investment – every bit of spending, no matter how dubious is an “investment,” good or, usually, bad – in high-speed internet service. Today it’s plans for Nunavut, tomorrow it’s $700,000 to bring high-speed Internet to 1,111 more homes in Bancroft, Carrying Place and Mountain View.

Given the importance of the internet, high-speed connections are as essential as roads when it comes to infrastructure. Unlike much government spending – including handouts masquerading as “investments” – establishing connectivity for all Canadians is beneficial.

Ottawa counters such good work by failing to protect consumers’ wallets and citizens’ privacy and other rights. Calling federal policies a basket case would be an understatement.

Access in the form of connectivity should be a priority. There’s a case to be made for free access, especially if technology advances to the point where large corporations such as Rogers and Bell can be bypassed. We’re not there yet, and the first order of business is to make access unfettered, uncensored and free of tracking: corporations should be prohibited from acquiring and keeping any information about usage, period.

Canada is doing little to protect citizens, however. In the past week alone selling out by striking down its own previous attempts to lower internet rates by caving into the large corporate interests.

“It’s appalling to see that the CRTC has once again sided with Big Telecom. It’s clear they couldn’t care less about consumers, affordability, or small providers. This is the most anti-customer decision I’ve ever seen from the commission. They effectively decided it would be too much work to get the rates right, so they’re just giving up – on their own work, on small internet providers, and Canadians. And if that wasn’t enough, they continue to double-down on their dogmatic faith in ‘facilities-based competition’ – the same model that for decades has failed to lower prices, or deliver sufficient speeds to those in rural and remote areas,” notes OpenMedia executive director Laura Tribe in a response to the CRTC’s decision May 27.

“The Liberal government campaigned on a platform of Internet affordability, but their pick for CRTC chair has undermined this pledge at every turn. In his time as chair, Ian Scott has overseen the rollback of nearly every gain we’ve made for Canadians. What’s worse, Cabinet actually set the stage for today’s disastrous decision, as their August 2020 Order in Council amounted to asking the CRTC to raise the rates. Our community won’t let this betrayal stand, and we can guarantee Canadians will remember it and hold them accountable next time they go to the polls.”

OpenMedia is also a signatory on a joint letter put to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by the Internet Society that calls attention to pieces of recently tabled legislation and proposals made through consultation that threaten to harm Canada’s internet. 

Through multiple pieces of legislation and policy proposals, the Canadian government is taking aim at Canada’s free and open internet that obliges by the principles of net neutrality, opponents argue.

“Now more than ever, all members of Canadian society rely on the internet. A recent series of proposals and actions taken by your government threaten to adversely impact our freedom to access online content of our choice, to post legal content without fear of censorship, and even risk disrupting the technical infrastructure of the Internet. Such proposals include amendments to the Broadcasting Act in Bill C-10, forthcoming online harms legislation, and proposals from both the CRTC and the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development to block content at the network level,” Internet Society members write in an open letter.

While talking a good game at time, the feds have routinely acted against the public good in all facets of internet regulation. Effective regulation is needed if the technology is to live up to its historic image.

The internet has long been touted as a great equalizer, providing everyone with a voice on a global network. From democratic voices in opposition to dictators to small web-based stores in opposition to the online presence of conglomerates, the net put everyone on the same footing.

That myth is an enduring part of the internet’s promise. By now we know – or should know – all of that is simply a nice hypothetical. The reality is much different. The power imbalance means dictators block access to communications and kill dissidents, that large corporate interests squeeze out the little guys and take control of the Internet. They also buy off politicians and bureaucrats – nothing new there – to kill off any democratic regulatory leanings.

Net neutrality prohibit internet providers from blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization – i.e. fast lanes for sites that pay, and slow lanes for everyone else.

As net neutrality advocates note, cable companies are famous for high prices and poor service, with several ranking as the most hated companies. It’s those companies that have lobbied governments to end net neutrality. Their goal is simple: they want the power to slow sites down so they can bully any site into paying millions to escape the slow lane. They’ll essentially be gatekeepers for the Internet, extorting money from providers and customers alike.

It’s a good deal for them, but bad for just about everybody else. It’s bad policy, and probably even bad politics, but they’ve paid a large amount of money to get what they want.

Proper net neutrality rules mean the internet runs like the phone service: anybody can call anybody else, with no limits on who we can call and no difference in the service. A phone call is a phone call. Assaults on net neutrality reverse that democratizing aspect of the technology.

The history of the internet is full of attempts to keep it open, accessible and democratic. As it’s become more corporate, it’s become less of those things. From open societies, we migrate to gated communities.

Keeping the technology open to all users, particularly by limiting corporate ownership and manipulation, will do much more than governments throwing around tax dollars.

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