Canadians Rally for Net Neutrality

As a few hundred scruffy protesters gathered in Ottawa yesterday to support Net Neutrality, busloads of teenagers on school trips to visit Canada’s seat of government walked past them, blissfully unaware that the fight to keep Facebook free was happening right next to them.

Neutrality should be an easy sell: Nobody wants ISPs to be able to treat traffic differently, fearing it will lead to monthly “Google plans” or “Skype charges.”

But it quickly gets complicated. Rather than trying to win one battle, special interest groups bring in other fights: Tier-two ISPs want unfettered access to the last mile on wholesale links. Privacy advocates warn of prying eyes on the wires and at the borders. The specter of copyright enforcement looms large. And telcos complain that peer-to-peer is breaking their networks.

It shouldn’t be this way. Canada’s Net Neutrality debate has easy-to-spot villains: Bell and Rogers, who own most of the retail Internet, are both part of large media corporations. Bell has recently been caught red-handed shaping traffic, something second-tier ISPs like Teksavvy have long claimed.

Bell’s meddling recently became apparent when CBC Television released a new show, Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister, with BitTorrent. Because of traffic shaping, domestic downloads took five times as long as those in foreign countries. “There had been a lot of suspicion about traffic shaping, not just on Bell’s retail network but also on the wholesale network,” said Tom Copeland, chair of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers. “We were finding that rather than taking a couple of hours to download the show it was taking 10 or 12 hours.”

This time, it wasn’t just the nerds who were mad. Respectable citizens trying to get their programming from a national institution were furious. An unprecedented 1,200 consumers filed formal complaints with the country’s broadcasting and regulatory body, the CRTC.

It’s a golden opportunity for advocates to make Net Neutrality simple and relevant. Yesterday’s rally, organized by a coalition of technology and free speech groups, coincided with the introduction of a private member’s bill by member of parliament, Charlie Angus. But unless they stick to the mainstream, they risk being ignored by politicians and the general public once again and letting well-monied carriers have their way with the Internet.