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164. Net Neutrality

By Andrew D. Wright

The idea of net neutrality is pretty simple. An Internet Service Provider should provide access to the Internet without favoring some traffic or some web sites over others.

Of the four topics covered in the October 2009 Internet Town Hall meeting in Halifax - Privacy, Copyright, the Digital Divide and Net Neutrality - the concept of net neutrality is the foundation upon which everything else rests.

"When I invented the Web, I didn't have to ask anyone's permission", said Sir Tim Berners-Lee. "Now, hundreds of millions of people are using it freely."

"Control of information is hugely powerful. In the US, the threat is that companies control what I can access for commercial reasons. (In China, control is by the government for political reasons.)"

In Canada, all the major telecommunications companies have violated the principles of net neutrality, which has helped bring the issue to the attention of the public and spotlighted the dangers of inaction.

Bell Canada throttled network traffic both on their network and on the network connectivity they sold to smaller providers. Bell denied doing this at first.

Rogers throttled peer-to-peer traffic then all encrypted traffic passing over their network on the off-chance it was also peer-to-peer. Rogers has also experimented with adding Rogers content to non-Rogers web pages served to its users.

Telus was engaged in a labor dispute with the Telecommunications Workers Union when it decided to block all access to the union's websites from Telus users.

Another issue for net neutrality, according to Halifax Internet Town Hall speaker Terry Dalton, president of ACORN-NS, the Atlantic Canada Organization of Research Networks, is deep packet inspection.

Data is sent over the Internet in packets. Think of regular post office mail - a letter is the payload and the envelope the letter is in, which tells where the letter is going and where it is from, is the packet.

An Internet Service Provider should just read the packet information and send the packet on its way. With deep packet inspection, the payload of the packet is also read. The Internet Service Provider can then use this information to target advertising to the individual user and monitor what exactly that user is doing. Governments around the world use deep packet inspection to spy on people.

Some Internet Service Providers use the information gleaned from deep packet inspection to determine how they deal with that packet. The packet may be slowed down, delayed or dropped if the Internet Provider doesn't like it for whatever reason, which could be political or social as well as technical.

In short, an Internet Service Provider has complete control over what passes over its network. In many areas there is limited competition and Internet access is provided by either the local telephone company or the local cable company so switching providers is not always an option for consumers.

In both the US and Canada this realization has resulted in growing public pressure for government to step in and start legislating net neutrality. US President Obama has pledged his support for net neutrality and appointed a pro-net neutrality chair to the US Federal Communications Commission.

In October 2009 the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) issued new guidelines for Internet Service Providers allowing them to continue their current practices but requiring they provide notice to their customers of their network traffic shaping.

Critics of the CRTC framework point out that much of it is non-binding on Internet Providers and it does very little in the way of protecting Canadian Internet users. Continuing public pressure from Canadian Internet users will be key in bringing in better rules in the future.


More information:

Save Our Net:


Video: Canada's Internet Explained:


Michael Geist's Blog:


Check your connection for interference (requires Java):


Chebucto Community Net Internet Town Hall site:


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Originally published 29 January 2010


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