It seems like everyone is talking about net neutrality right now—politicians, pundits, reporters, even Riverdale star Cole Sprouse, who recently took to social media to share his stance on the matter.
But despite this round-the-clock conversation, it’s OK if you still don’t know *exactly* what the term refers to—and how, if at all, the potential change in American law will affect us north of the border. Here’s the lowdown.
Net neutrality is the notion that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should treat all content that runs on their networks equally. Whatever the source or application, wherever the content is headed—all of it should be available to consumers at equal cost and speed.
Here, in Canada, our net neutrality regulations are pretty dope, TBH. The Canadian government firmly believes that it’s “important that all Canadians have access to choice, innovation and free exchange of ideas.” In fact, Trudeau just said that “net neutrality is something that is essential for small businesses [and] for consumers. It’s essential to keep the freedom associated with the internet alive.”
In the United States, however, the Trump government and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) want to repeal the strong net neutrality rules set forth by the Obama administration, which “prohibit ISPs from blocking, throttling and paid prioritization—”fast lanes” for sites that pay for it, and slow lanes for everyone else,” according to net neutrality proponent Battle For The Net.
FLARE asked Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law and a member of the Centre for Law, Technology and Society, about what this all means and how this could impact Canadians.
“A cynic would say that intense lobbying from telecommunication companies—the ISPs themselves—who never liked [net neutrality rules] is the reason [why the FCC may repeal them],” says Geist. “They could establish different kinds of services or fees, where they would treat different content differently. [Your ISP] might say to Netflix, for example, If you want to ensure that your videos are streamed fast, you’ll pay an extra fee or you’ll get stuck in the slow lane.”
Who cares—Netflix totally has the funds to pay for that kind of thing, right? But that’s not really the concern. “While a lot of the big players could pay—they wouldn’t be happy about it but they could probably pay—the chance for new services and companies to emerge would be really difficult,” explains Geist.
“From the consumer perspective, they might create packages that essentially incentivize people to use specific sites or services rather than being able to access whatever they like,” says Geist. “The Internet could look a lot like cable packages, where [your ISP] essentially gives you access to specific sites or services, as oppose to access to the whole thing.”
This would create a totally different Internet from the one we know (and love) today. And while it’s super freaky, Geist doesn’t believe you need to worry about the Canadian stance on net neutrality. “We’ve seen both our politicians and our regulator, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), take very strong pro-net neutrality positions,” says Geist.
That said, it doesn’t mean Canadians won’t be impacted at all by an American repeal. “Canadian services that want to access the U.S. market and find success there could be impacted, because they might face demands to pay up to be in the ‘fast lane,'” says Geist. “A lot of Canadian internet traffic goes through the US, and we’re not totally sure whether that will be affected, and then of course the fact that new services and new innovations on the Internet might not happen in the same way because some of those companies will struggle to survive—that will really affect everybody.”
The reason this is so scary is because, as with most things, one could argue that the United States sets the precedent for the rest of the world. As Colin Horgan writes for Maclean’s, “It’s not just about the ISPs, and it’s not just about Americans’ access to the internet. It’s about knocking down the walled gardens that are slowly, but gradually, being built around us.”
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