Back in 1999, in a rare and uncharacteristic display of good sense, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission announced: “Our message is clear. We are not regulating any portion of the Internet.”
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. The CRTC recently announced that it will hold hearings to investigate the possible regulation of “new media” in Canada. The announcement comes as the CRTC is deliberating whether or not Internet service providers have the right to throttle bandwidth based on the content clients are accessing. These are both troubling developments.
Regulating Canadian broadcast media is part of the CRTC’s mandate. According to the agency, the ubiquity of streaming video prompted their intrusion into online affairs. But the Internet is neither Canadian, nor a broadcaster. It’s an international network, and the “old media” rules don’t apply to online content. There are no broadcast licenses to issue and no channels or signals to prioritize.
Because the Internet is demand-driven, there’s no need for online content regulation by the CRTC. Canadians can access (or create) whatever content they want on the Web. There’s no real danger of corrupt broadcast monopolies or American content pushing out home-grown culture.
Of course, listening to the CRTC talk about regulating the Internet is like watching Don Quixote joust with windmills: neither of them has the slightest idea what they’re up against. Trying to impose CRTC policy-be it Canadian content quotas or decency regulations-on an open network is thoroughly impractical. Because the CRTC’s jurisdiction only extends over Canadian-operated websites, the negative impacts of regulation will be limited to Canadian content-a cruel irony for an agency whose goal is to “ensure that all Canadians have access to a wide variety of high quality Canadian programming.”
While the CRTC’s proposal to regulate online content is Quixotic, their deliberations on network neutrality are troubling. They’re currently hearing a complaint filed by the Canadian Association of Internet Providers against Bell Canada, after CAIP complained that Bell is throttling the speed of certain types of online traffic, like peer-to-peer file sharing.
Throttling is a troubling practice for net neutrality advocates. Google, one of the more prominent advocates of network neutrality, states their case in simple terms: “Internet users should be in control of what content they view and what applications they use on the Internet. … Just as telephone companies are not permitted to tell consumers who they can call or what they can say, broadband carriers should not be allowed to use their market power to control activity online.”
The Tribune couldn’t agree more. Giving Internet service providers the ability to prioritize or block traffic makes them the judge of what Canadians should see. Government censorship-like the CRTC’s-is bad enough. But private sector censorship is a terrifying prospect. Whatever its flaws, the Internet’s accessibility has been a virtue. The CRTC should leave it that way.