Net neutrality means the Internet remains something worth using

Last June, a U.S. Senate panel rejected proposed rules that would require all Internet traffic to be treated the same no matter what its “source” or “destination” might be. It was a close call: the final vote was 11-11, but the bill was reintroduced in JanuaryLast month, following published reports that his office was examining a government-commissioned study recommending similar regulations here, a Bloc MP asked Industry Minister Maxime Bernier to throw his support behind Net neutrality in the House of Commons. He refused, which is why more voices need to be raised to bring this issue to the forefront.

Net neutrality regulations have been largely portrayed, even by their supporters, as a series of consumer protection mechanisms. The idea is that Web site owners would not have to pay higher fees to Bell, Telus or other Internet service providers (ISPs) in order for their pages to load more quickly than other online properties. But consumers would not be the only ones to suffer should ISPs decide to prioritize some traffic over others.

As enterprises shift to more Web-based applications for everything from sales force automation to self-service customer tools, the need for a level online playing field is more important than ever. Imagine if IT managers, their employers (and their employers’ lawyers) had to set up carriage agreements with Bell, Telus or Rogers in order to ensure they weren’t treated as second-class Web citizens. This is not the same thing as choosing between a T1 connection and dialup service: this is putting a premium on some URLs over others, a cost and legal burden that would not easily be borne in a country made up largely of small businesses.

Net neutrality is rearing its head in part because Internet access has become a commodity business, and ISPs are desperate for additional sources of revenue. It is also coming to the fore because the Internet is growing more popular among a wide range of users, putting pressure on the pipes that serve everyone from the smallest blog to the largest corporate portals.

The one risk of giving all traffic the same priority is that network congestion will occur, impairing the ability to do everything from performing telemedicine surgeries to downloading an MP3 file. ISPs complain about the high costs of investing in the infrastructure necessary to ensure consistent quality of service, but that doesn’t mean that ISPs should become the Internet’s gatekeepers, choosing at their own discretion – and charging as they see fit – which packets deserve to move to the front of the line. ISPs will have to meet those challenges whether Net neutrality rules are made into law or not, and they should at the very least be challenged to provide some alternative strategies.

Bernier’s track record in bowing to market forces on other regulatory issues suggests he will take a passive stance on Net neutrality, but he doesn’t have to. If we value access to information as we do access to health care, Canada should support such regulation. Net neutrality has been called the First Amendment of the Internet in the U.S. Canadians might want to think of it as an online extension to our Charter of Rights and Freedoms instead.

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