In recent weeks, an impassioned debate about Net Neutrality amongst our southern neighbours has triggered similar discussions here at home. As the Shadow Minister for Science, I am keenly interested in research, innovation and technology. As such, I wanted to take this opportunity to lay out some of my thoughts on the pertinent issue of Net Neutrality.
The exact definition and legal interpretation of Net Neutrality can vary by context, but the overarching idea behind Net Neutrality is common carriage. Common carriage stipulates that internet service providers, like Bell and Rogers, cannot influence or give preference to content passing through their distribution networks, such as the website a user is trying to access. The recent discussion happening in the United States revolves around a decades-old debate over whether internet service providers should be classified as a utility, which must guarantee common carriage, or an information service, which would allow providers to control content. On December 14, 2017, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that internet service providers should be regulated as information services, thus relieving them of common carriage obligations. According to the Canadian Telecommunications Act, internet providers in Canada are explicitly treated as providing a utility, ensuring that they practice common carriage.
In the American context, the FCC’s decision to essentially remove common carriage protections means that service providers can intentionally speed up or slow down access to websites of their choosing, depending on whether the site is owned by an associated company, or by a competitor. Furthermore, service providers can charge consumers a premium to access certain websites like Instagram or Facebook, in a similar manner to cable bundles.
To be clear, these changes are not currently in the works to come into effect in Canada. Nonetheless, it is important for Canadians to understand how their access to the internet functions, as the internet is often Canadians’ primary source of information and current events.
Where Canadians will feel directly impacted by the American FCC’s decision is in rising subscription fees to US-based applications. Creators of American apps such as Netflix or Spotify will need to negotiate deals with American service providers to ensure preferential access to their platforms within the US. The cost of doing so will be passed on to any consumers of those platforms inside and outside of the United States.
There is to be a review of the Canadian Telecommunications Act this year and I am honoured to have a seat on the House Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology where I will have the opportunity to formally engage in this review process. In that capacity, I will push for the continued protection of common carriage in the telecommunications industry.
I support loosening regulation where appropriate to encourage innovation. However, the belief in equality is a foundational principal of conservatism, and as such, I do not believe that Canadians’ access to information should be arbitrarily disadvantaged based on their ability to pay. Freedom of speech, and with that the free flow of information, is an important principle for all Canadians. Large media conglomerates should not have the ability to arbitrarily decide on Canadians’ behalf what they can and cannot see online. These are guiding principles that will direct my assessment in any future discussions on Net Neutrality in Canada.