This week might decide the future of how – and which – Internet companies conduct their business in Canada.

From Monday Oct. 31 to Friday Nov. 4, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) will be conducting a week-long hearing regarding whether it should reinforce, in its words, “differential pricing practices related to Internet data plans” – or, in plain English, net neutrality.

Unless it’s Bell Canada, Facebook Inc., or Netflix Inc., your company has good reason to be in favour of the CRTC enforcing net neutrality, which would require service providers to treat all Internet traffic equally, experts told CBC technology reporter Ramona Pringle: Without it, service providers have the authority to give certain websites preferential treatment.

Bell, for example, could ensure its subscribers had priority access to the company’s streaming service, CraveTV, and sweeten the deal by promising them that watching CraveTV wouldn’t add to their data use caps.

“If certain companies, presumably the established ones, can pay for preferential treatment, it puts new startups and independent creators at a huge disadvantage,” Charles Falzon, Ryerson University’s dean of the faculty of communication and design, told CBC. “Once upon a time even Facebook was just a startup.”

Though he did not explicitly support one position or the other, CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais articulated this position as well in his pre-hearing address on Monday, noting that some Canadian service providers are already taking advantage of differential pricing, setting different rates for Internet access under different circumstances – such as exempting specific applications from monthly allowances (“zero-rated data”).

“If you only look at one or two individual practices in isolation, it may seem like certain service providers are giving some Canadians a good deal,” Blais said in his Oct. 31 address. “However, there is a lot more to this issue than saving a few dollars.”

The hearings were launched partly in response to a pair of applications submitted last year by Videotron, which if approved would allow the Montreal-based telecom to provide a mobile wireless plan that includes unlimited access to the company’s Unlimited Music service.

“As this goes beyond an individual case and because of potential increased use of differential pricing practices such as this one, we decided to go beyond the particular case of the Videotron applications and look at this issue as a whole, so that Canadians and Internet service providers alike can benefit from a clear and transparent regulatory policy,” Blais said.

“It is also worth mentioning that these practices are an emerging issue and also a challenge for other regulators around the world,” he continued. “They will be watching our proceeding as we consider important elements in defining how Canadians access the Internet.”

Several high-profile organizations have submitted documents and will be giving presentations during the week-long hearing, including Bell, which according to the CBC is in favour of differential pricing, which it told the CRTC would “directly benefit consumers in the same way that toll-free long distance, promotional coupons, waived Internet installation fees, and free previews of television broadcasts do.”

Rogers Communications Inc., by contrast, is expected to argue in favour of net neutrality.

The CRTC had previously announced the hearing back in May, emphasizing that it was seeking public responses to three questions in particular:

  • How should differential pricing practices be defined in relation to the provision of Internet data plans over wireline and wireless networks?
  • What are the benefits and concerns about these practices, and do these concerns outweigh the benefits as to justify regulatory intervention?
  • What regulatory measures, if any, should the CRTC implement?

Ultimately, in addition to soliciting comments from the public until June 17, the CRTC asked a wide range of experts to contribute to the hearing, including Danish Internet economics and policy expert Roslyn Layton, Stanford law professor Barbara van Schewick, and even Reddit, with the CRTC soliciting the website’s Internet-savvy Canadian users for feedback and adding more than 1,200 of their comments to the public record.

“I believe we are one of the first government agencies to use Reddit as an official consultation platform, and I am very proud of that,” Blais said.

Other high-profile organizations that will be giving presentations during the week-long hearing include Facebook Inc., OpenMedia, Telus Communications Company, TekSavvy Solutions Inc., and Cogeco Communications Inc., and Shaw Cablesystems G.P., and Québecor Média Inc.

The full schedule for the hearing can be found on the CRTC’s website, while submitted documents will be posted on one of the organization’s Twitter feeds.

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