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Net Neutrality and the War On News
As the federal government and tech giant Meta (Facebook) continue their entrenched battle over access to, and payment for, Canadian news, we might consider what is really at stake.
Both sides are going after the fundamental tenets of the Internet in their own way. The government is demanding payment for links, which is anathema to the whole construct of the world wide web. Facebook is responding by selectively blocking access to specific content or content providers, going after the fundamental concept of the equality of traffic, the core of net neutrality.
The whole impasse could be resolved in any of a dozen ways, such as implementing a specific tax on Internet ad revenue regardless of platform or amount, which could be put into a public interest information fund of some sort, among many other possible solutions.
Instead, the government is creating an information market ever-more favourable to disinformation, with reliable information specifically excluded for Canadian users from their most popular sources of information. The impact is real. And the timing is atrocious, driving the information market into the hands of the far right just as the government needs balanced and honest coverage more than ever. The timing of Poilievre’s meteoric rise, and the Trudeau government’s rapid and profound fall from public grace is not a complete coincidence.
I have yet to figure out the government’s true objective in waging this war; if funding media was truly the goal, they could not have failed more comprehensively. More likely, it was to poise the government as the defender of the people against the big bad oligopoly of social media. Sadly, the optics of this apparent fight for the common folk are lost when the effect is to paint over the lens.
For all intents and purposes, access to quality journalism, and net neutrality itself in Canada is on its deathbed, and the two major parties to this avoidable conflict have both put themselves into positions where backing down is effectively impossible.
In 2018, we had a debate in Parliament about the importance of Net Neutrality, at the behest of then-MP John Oliver. You can watch my full speech on the topic above, or read the abridged part that is relevant here:
At its core, net neutrality means that Internet service providers and the backbone providers that ISPs are connected to do not judge, limit, or control the content, speed, or nature of Internet traffic.
Without net neutrality, there is nothing stopping, for example, Bell Canada, the country's largest Internet provider, one of three roughly equally large-sized cellphone providers, and the plurality owner of Canada's domestic content creation market, from limiting people's Internet access on their Bell Canada connection or phone to Bell Canada content, which includes CTV news, The Movie Network, Crave TV, the sports network, and so forth, nor preventing them from accessing, say, CBC content.
We have all experienced the message of “This content is not available in your country” when content distributors or creators have used various technologies to figure out where a user is and limit a user's access in order to drive a user to a different provider or place for that particular content, or to block a user from it altogether. Indeed, a lot of Canadian-produced content is virtually impossible to access in Canada while being available in much of the rest of the world. Try watching Canada's Mayday, for example, without a Bell account. It cannot legally be done. It makes me wonder on what grounds vertical integration of the media market is legal. The neutrality of the net is under threat from all sides already, and it will take a concerted effort to protect it.
Removing net neutrality gives companies that control over people's Internet access and control over their Internet content. Once they do that, companies can start shaping a consumer's opinion, tune marketing, and sell access to the consumer for a much reduced cost.
With the current Cambridge Analytica controversy surrounding Facebook, themselves the king of those who control what consumers do, see, think, and feel on the Internet, we can see that this is not just some kind of vague theory. It is important to remember that if one is not paying for a product, then one is the product. This data gathering and control is not conducted just for the fun of it. People's data is not being stored in a cloud. There is no cloud, just other people's computers, and they want your data for a reason.
Without mandated net neutrality, there is nothing to stop a company from paying someone's ISP to increase access to their own services or decrease access to their competitor's services.
Net neutrality can, and perhaps should, be expanded further to encompass investment neutrality. It is not just access to Internet service that is important. Equal, or at least equivalent, access for Internet users is also vital.
Choosing to invest in a gigabit-speed network in a city and fobbing off the regions with five megabits is not neutral. Specific users are being limited instead of specific services, but the outcome is the same.
As a society and as a nation, we have a responsibility to ensure neutral access, to invest in a neutral way, and to give every Canadian a chance to get connected.
If members would like to know what losing net neutrality looks like, try using an iPhone or an iPad, assuming that Apple has not slowed it down yet to coax people to buy a new one. If members have ever plugged an iPhone into a non-Apple laptop or wanted to copy pictures to a USB stick or watch something paid for through iTunes on an Android, Windows, or other non-Apple device, it is very difficult to do.
If one wants to use an application not approved by Apple, forget it. It is, by its very definition and design, not neutral. By giving itself the power to censor, Apple has found itself with the obligation to censor. In the words of Richard Stallman, the father of the free software movement, either the user controls the program or the program controls the user.
Ending rather than entrenching net neutrality would end the Internet as we know it, and we need to make a strong statement supporting the principle of net neutrality by supporting this motion.
It’s time we recall those values expressed in Parliament just five years ago, and defend the equal access to information at the core of the Internet.
It’s time to end the war between government and social media, and to look for ways together to construct a fair information environment.
It’s critical to do it before the disinformation environment is all that’s left.