2015: Net neutrality battles go global

The U.S., Europe and India all struggled with ways to maintain an open internet for everyone.

net neutrality, net neutrality rules, net neutrality battles

Net Neutrality Battles:

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Canadians may pay some of the highest rates in the world for internet and wireless services, but one advantage they do have over many other countries is a relatively strong framework – and regulator – when it comes to net neutrality.

Net neutrality is, for the uninitiated, the general principle that forbids internet service providers from unduly interfering with the applications and traffic that run over their networks. In this way, individuals and companies are able to experiment with new applications without having to effectively ask ISPs for permission.

In Canada, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission got ahead of this thorny issue years ago. In 2009, the regulator issued a set of rules that prevent ISPs from blocking or slowing applications, and earlier this year it slapped Bell and Videotron on the figurative wrists for giving preference to their video content to wireless subscribers.

Net neutrality is thus fairly strong in Canada, at least for now. The rest of the world, however, spent much of 2015 struggling with the issue of how to keep the internet competitive, innovative and open to all.

The Federal Communications Commission finally passed net neutrality rules in February that, like Canada’s, prevent American ISPs from unduly interfering with traffic. As Wired put it, 2015 is the year the regulator “finally grew a spine.”

It was a close call, though, as the FCC initially favoured allowing so-called prioritized services, which would have allowed ISPs to charge internet content providers such as Netflix or Google more for faster connectivity.

It took an intervention by President Barack Obama, not to mention a petition signed by millions of Americans, to convince the FCC that its plan was a bad idea. The likely result would be a two-tiered internet: a faster one for rich companies and a slower one for those who couldn’t afford the ISPs’ extortion attempts.

The FCC did, however, keep the door open to so-called zero-rated services, where ISPs can cut deals with internet content providers to exempt applications from data usage caps. Critics warn that such measures are effectively the same as slowing or blocking certain internet uses, and they may be right.

Heading into 2016, the FCC and CRTC alike are both facing zero-rating battles. U.S. wireless carrier T-Mobile is exempting video services such as Netflix from data caps while Quebec’s Videotron is doing the same with music services such as Spotify.

The companies argue that zero-rating is good for consumers because it saves them data, but consumer advocates say data scarcity is an anti-competitive scheme cooked up by the providers to make more money. How the two regulators rule on the complaints in 2016 is likely to determine how the internet evolves in North America for the next few years.

Net neutrality was also a huge issue in India in 2015, with entrepreneurs, media organizations and even comedians protesting the government’s plans to also allow paid prioritization.

Like the FCC, the country’s regulator looks to have flip-flopped after the outcry, issuing a temporary ban this month on a plan by Facebook and wireless provider Reliance Communications to offer subscribers a package of zero-rated websites. The battle is far from settled, though.

Over in Europe, policy makers took a step backwards in the fall when they voted for rules that will allow paid prioritization and specialized services. Critics are particularly irate over the vote, since it looks like politicians passed the rules simply so that they could put a long-simmering, unrelated debate over wireless roaming rates to bed.

Regardless of the eventual outcomes, it’s clear that governments, politicians, regulators and advocates in many countries spent a good portion of 2015 trying to figure out the best way forward in ensuring that the internet remains open, without much agreement.

It’s a vital battle that will continue into 2016, with firm resolutions likely to come in at least a few countries – with Canada probably leading the way again.

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