One of the great things about the Internet is the way that so many separate networks make it all work. Most users take for granted when we look at a web page or do an Internet search that it just "works." But the reality is that your requests (and responses) travel great distances, using equipment, servers, pipelines and so on from various companies and individuals to bring you what you are looking for. What seems like a bit of magic is actually the result of many years of work.
Recently, a federal court in Washington struck down rules that make broadband Internet providers "common carriers." This centuries-old legal concept has been used to regulate telecommunications and other industries as well. It has been brought into the legal system many times and has been used as a beneficial protection layer for both companies and individuals. One example that common carrier status gives a telephone company, such as Bell, is immunity in legal cases where others have used its system to conduct or plan crimes. The individuals involved should be responsible, not the telephone company. Until recently, the concept of the common carrier has been carried over to Internet usage as well but now this is in jeopardy.
In 2010, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) adopted a set of rules called the Open Internet Regulations that are supposed to continue to provide and preserve open access to the Internet. In 2011, telecommunications giant Verizon challenged the FCC's authority to impose such rules and just now these rules have been overturned by the U.S. federal appeals court. It indicated that, although the FCC has the authority to regulate broadband access, the rules and ways in which its rules are being applied don't apply to broadband providers. So it's back to the drawing board.
The reason why this becomes scary for consumers is that it would allow each and every Internet service provider to charge more for certain types of traffic or even block or "shape" access. This could really change things for Netflix, whose users actually make up the current bulk of Internet traffic in the U.S. (and likely in Canada as well). Companies could try and push users towards their own services for example and try to cut out these other services by changing the landscape.
In Canada, it's still unclear of how these changes will affect us. The CRTC (our equivalent of the FCC) doesn't always just do what the U.S. does. The site netneutrality.ca, provided by Canadian telecommunications observer Michael Geist, has been surprisingly quiet on the latest developments.
An example of how the entire Internet pricing model could change was recently brought to light when Bell Mobility was slapped with a consumer complaint, filed with the CRTC about unfair practices on their service. The complaint indicates that Bell "discriminates against consumers and competitors." The specific example revolves around the Bell Mobile TV service, which costs $5 per month and includes 5 GB of video. If a customer were to use 5 GB of data through a competing service such as Netflix, the cost would be approximately $40 to do so, which is an 800% markup. Bell has monthly data caps on plans but specifically exempts Mobile TV from those caps.
Until the law is laid out clearly I'm afraid these sorts of things are just going to get worse for the consumer as time goes on. The big problem is that it not only creates an uneven playing field for everyone, but also creates a confusing one. At the end of the day the only people losing out are the consumers, which these rules, ironically, are set out to protect in the first place.
Will all of this affect you in the end? Maybe not today, but likely tomorrow. And it will help make the big decisions about how the Internet will be regulated. What will likely happen is once we get all this sorted out, the issue of Internet taxation will rear its ugly head again but that's a conversation for another column.
Syd Bolton is the curator of the Personal Computer Museum and the manager of Information Technology at ACIC/Methapharm. You can reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by snail mail care of The Brantford Expositor.