Controversy over “traffic throttling” by Canadian ISPs heats up

The ongoing controversy over traffic shaping by leading facilities-based Canadian ISPs has intensified with more high-profile groups speaking out on the issue.

The Campaign for Democratic Media (CDM) has called upon the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to initiate a “public proceeding” examining the practice.

CDM is a broad coalition of groups from across Canada that seeks to foster public participation in Canadian media policy formation.

Traffic or “packet shaping” refers to the practice of limiting the amount of available bandwidth for certain services such as peer-to-peer (p2p) file sharing applications.

Bell Canada Enterprises and Rogers Communications Inc. have both admitted to doing this.

They argue that managing the traffic flow in this way is needed so the bulk of Internet surfers don’t suffer from slower service.

Net neutrality advocates, however, oppose traffic throttling saying the practice could be used by facilities-based ISPs to limit bandwidth of competing content or services.

Over the past few months, one aspect of traffic throttling received a great deal of attention in the media: its impact on third-party ISPs that buy connectivity on a wholesale basis from Bell and then resell it to consumers.

Traffic shaping by Bell has left these resellers with irate customers, who have complained of much slower bandwidth.

In April, the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) – a group that represents 55 such resellers – petitioned the CRTC for an immediate cease-and-desist order on traffic-shaping.

While public advocacy groups also oppose the pratice, they call for a broader perspective on the issue, noting that resellers (such as Bell’s wholesale customers) are not the only ones affected.

“We think the CRTC needs to look at the big picture,” says Philippa Lawson, director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic in Ottawa.

She said the negative impact of traffic shaping “extends to other ISPs and other customers, not just wholesale customers.”

“If ISPs want to have the benefit of being just carriers and not responsible for the content, then they shouldn’t be looking at the content of the traffic,” Lawson says.

Facilities-based ISPs have other options to control bandwidth hogging, she adds. They could ask Internet users to voluntarily cut back on their use of high-bandwidth applications, for example.

Discriminating against p2p traffic is seen as acceptable by facilities-based ISPs because they believe p2p is often used to swap files illegally. Popular BitTorrent tracker sites such as The Pirate Bay offer users p2p downloads of pirated movies and music.

These ISPs claim that the five to 10 per cent of customers who use p2p are hog 80 per cent of the bandwidth during peak periods.

“The argument [made by these ISPs] is: ‘look, we own this infrastructure, and peer-to-peer traffic is often copyright infringement’,” says Mark Tauschek, senior research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group.

But advocacy groups, such as CIPPIC, aren’t buying that at all.

Lawson, for instance, notes p2p has many legal uses and could be a more mainstream method of communication soon. Service providers shouldn’t be allowed to limit the adoption of such technologies, she says.

“They’re not limiting traffic in a fair and non-discriminatory way. They’re choosing to target a specific application instead of overall heavy usage.”

Be that as it may, Info-Tech’s Tauschek doesn’t believe the CRTC is likely to strong-arm Canadian ISPs and instruct them on how to regulate their multi-billion dollar infrastructure, says.

Before more mainstream uses of p2p traffic emerge, the CRTC won’t be motivated to demand a change in behaviour, he says.

“I bet the CRTC will say there’s nothing they will do about it at this point in time. They’re not in a position to force ISPs to change that policy.”

A Bell spokesperson declined to comment. Bell is submitting its final response to the CAIP complaints on Thursday. The comments will be made publicly available on the CRTC Web site.

Bet on Bell to stick to the company line, Tauschek says – they can’t give up traffic throttling because they need to guarantee adequate service for all users, and not give a small group preference.

“Bell seems pretty adamant they are not going back on this,” the analyst says.

The comments filed with the CRTC are CIPPIC’s second volley in an attack on traffic-shaping policies. The group filed a complaint with the Privacy Commissioner of Canada claiming that deep packet inspection (DPI) is being used to look at users’ e-mail without permission.

Both Bell and Rogers have denied this charge, maintaining that DPI is purely for network management purposes.

Both the privacy office and the CRTC can bring something to bear on the traffic-shaping issue, Lawson says. The governmental bodies are responsible for legislation that touches upon DPI and use of infrastructure. They could work together on the matter.

“We think the CRTC can add a lot of technical knowledge on how DPI works in the telecommunications environment,” she says.

The CRTC could also be stricter in its regulation, Lawson adds. It could ban the practice entirely, for example.

The federal privacy commissioner’s office declined to comment on the ongoing investigation. But the organization says it is open to working with the CRTC if there is a shared interest.

“We like to have as collaborative approach as possible,” says Anne-Marie Hayden, media relations for the office.

Tauschek suggests that CIPPIC’s action of filing a complaint with the privacy commissioner is aimed more at raising public ire against traffic-shaping.

“It’s more about getting the public angry than it is actually [about] getting anything done.”

The privacy commissioner would have to be convinced that ISPs had some interest in reading their customers e-mail, the analyst says. Users who encrypt their e-mail – automatically done by Web mail services – prevent their messages from being read anyway, he adds.

While bringing public attention to the traffic-shaping issue, CIPPIC isn’t necessarily looking to have the practice banned entirely, Lawson says. They are just looking for a public debate on the issue.

“We need to hear more from the companies before we come to a final decision.”

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