Plenty of hand-wringing, but will there be action following internet
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Plenty of hand-wringing, but will there be action following internet outage?

Last week’s outage in the Rogers cellular and internet systems was a palpable reminder of how dependent we’ve become on such technology. It’s also a red flag about how much we rely on a handful of telecommunications firms who operate with very little oversight.

Beyond many people being unable to update Facebook, there were real issues at play. Access to emergency services was impeded. Businesses were unable to accept debit payments even as some ATMs were down, inhibiting access to cash.

The federal government is promising to look into the matter, at least right now while the issue is hot. If history is any guide, little new regulation will emerge. In the meantime, Ottawa will continue to pour more public dollars into private hands as part of its efforts to boost broadband connectivity across the country.

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.

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. That’s what makes the proposed merger  of Rogers and Shaw an important bellwether case, not just for competition but for maintaining alternative channels when it comes to connectivity. We’re too dependent on the technology to put our eggs in just a few baskets.

“Enormous advances in mobile tech have made Canada’s telecoms enormously powerful, and that power has consolidated in just five major players. That number threatens to get smaller, too, with the proposed Rogers-Shaw merger currently under review by Canada’s Competition Bureau. If the deal goes through, the company that caused so many Canadians to lose connection with each other would serve roughly 40 per cent of all households in English Canada,” writes Vass Bednar, the executive director of McMaster University’s master of public policy in digital society program and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, in an opinion piece for the Globe and Mail.

“For me, though, the outage of Rogers cellular and wireless services was not primarily about the need for competition reform in Canada. Instead, it reinforced the idea that our telecommunication networks are vital public infrastructure that is controlled by private corporations. We’ve lost sight of that balance, despite the ways we rely on those networks.”

Those concerns are shared by watchdog group OpenMedia, which calls attention to business practices and government legislation that threaten to harm Canada’s internet.

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

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 prohibits 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.

The Rogers outage underscores both how the internet has become essential infrastructure and how little control we have over the physical networks and public-friendly oversight.

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