Tag Archives: net neutrality

The Audacity of Shaw: How Canada's Internet just got Worse

It is really, really, really hard to believe. But as bad as internet access is in Canada, it just got worse.

Yesterday, Shaw Communications, a Canadian telecommunications company and internet service provider (ISP) that works mostly in Western Canada announced they are launching Movie Club, a new service to compete with Netflix.

On the surface this sounds like a good thing. More offerings should mean more competition, more choice and lower prices. All things that would benefit consumers.

Look only slightly closer and you learn the very opposite is going on.

This is because, as the article points out:

“…subscribers to Movie Club — who initially can watch on their TV or computer, with phones and tablets planned to come on line later — can view content without it counting against their data plan.

“There should be some advantage to you being a customer,” Bissonnette said.”

The very reason the internet has been such an amazing part of our lives is that every service that is delivered on it is treated equally. You don’t pay more to look at the Vancouver Sun’s website than you do to look at eaves.ca or CNN or to any other website in the world. For policy and technology geeks this principle of equality of access is referred to as net neutrality. The idea is that ISPs (like Shaw) should not restrict or give favourable access to content, sites, or services on the internet.

But this is precisely what Shaw is doing with its new service.

This is because ISPs in Canada charge what are called “overages.” This means if you use the internet a lot, say you watch a lot of videos, at a certain point you will exceed a “cap” and Shaw charges you extra, beyond your fixed monthly fee. If, for example, you use Netflix (which is awesome and cheap, for $8 a month you get unlimited access to a huge quantity of content) you will obviously be watching a large number of videos, and the likelihood of exceeding the cap is quite high.

What Shaw has announced is that if you use their service – Movie Club – none of the videos you watch will count against your cap. In other words they are favouring their service over that of others.

So why should you care? Because, in short, Shaw is making the internet suck. It wants to turn your internet from the awesome experience where you have unlimited choice and can try any service that is out there, into the experience of cable, where your choice is limited to the channels they choose to offer you. Today they’ll favour their movie service as opposed to (the much better) Netflix service. But tomorrow they may decide… hey you are using Skype instead of our telephone service, people who use “our skype” will get cheaper access than people who use skype. Shaw is effectively applying a tax on new innovative and disruptively cheap service on the internet so that you don’t use them. They are determining – through pricing – what you can and cannot do with your computer while elsewhere in the world, people will be using cool new disruptive services that give them better access to more fun content, for cheaper. Welcome to the sucky world of Canada’s internet.

Doubling down on Audacity: The Timing

Of course what makes this all the more obscene is that Shaw has announced this service at the very moment the CRTC – the body that regulates Canada’s Internet Service Providers – is holding hearings on Usage Based Billings. One of the reasons Canada’s internet providers say that have to charge “overages” for those who use the internet a lot is because of there isn’t enough bandwidth. But how is it that there is enough bandwidth for their own services?

As Steve Anderson of the OpenMedia – a consumer advocacy group – shared with me yesterday “It’s a huge abuse of power.” and that “The launch of this service at the time when the CRTC is holding a hearing on pricing regulation should be seen as a slap in the face to the the CRTC, and the four hundred and ninety one thousand Canadians that signed the Stop The Meter petition.”

My own feeling is the solution is pretty simple. We need to get the ISPs out of the business of delivering content. Period. Their job should be to deliver bandwidth, and nothing else. You do that, you’ll have them competing over speed and price very, very quickly. Until then the incentive of ISPs isn’t to offer good internet service, it’s to do the opposite, it’s to encourage (or force) users to use the services they offer over the internet.

For myself, I’m a Shaw customer and a Netflix customer. Until now I’ve had nothing to complain about with either. Now, apparently I have to choose between the two. I can tell you right now who is going to win. Over the next few months I’m going to be moving my internet service to another provider. Maybe I’ll still get cable TV from Shaw, I don’t know, but my internet service is going to a company that gives me the freedom to choose the services I want and that doesn’t ding me with fees that apparently, I’m being charged under false pretenses. I’ll be telling by family members, friends and pretty much everyone I know, to do the same.

Shaw, I’m sorry it had to end this way. But as a consumer, it’s the only responsible thing to do.

Digital Economy Strategy: Why we risk asking the wrong question

Far better an approximate answer to the right question, than the exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise….

John Tukey

I’ve always admired Paul Erdos, the wandering mathematician who I first learned about by reading his obituary in the Economist back in 1996 (and later learned was a friend and frequent house guest of my grandfather’s). What I remember best about that economist obituary was how one of his students talking about his genius not lying in his capacity to produce mathematical proofs, but in his ability to ask the right question, which set events in motion so that the proof could be found at all.

It is with that idea in mind that I turn to the Canada 3.0 conference here in Stratford Ontario where I’ve been invited to take part in a meeting with industry types and policy leaders to talk about what Canada must do to become a leading digital nation by 2017. The intent is to build on last year’s Stratford Declaration and develop an action plan.

So what do I think we need to do? First, I think we need to ask the right question.

I think we need to stop talking about a digital as the future.

This whole conversation isn’t about being a digital country. It isn’t about a future where everything is going to be digitized. That isn’t the challenge. It is already happening. It’s done. It’s over. Canada is already well on its way to becoming digital. Anyone who uses MS Word to write a document is digital. I’ve been submitting papers using a word processor since high school (this comes from a place of privilege, something I’ll loop back to). Worse, talking about digital means talking about technology like servers or standards or business models like Bell, or Google or Music Producers and all the other things that don’t matter.

The dirty truth is that Canada’s digital future isn’t about digital. What is special isn’t that everything is being digitized. It’s that everything is being connected. The web isn’t interesting because you can read it on a computer screen. It is special because of hyperlinks – that information is connected to other information (again, something the newspaper have yet to figure out). So this is a conversation about connectivity. It is about the policy and legal structure needed when me, you, information, and places, when everything, everywhere is connected to everything else, everywhere persistently. That’s the big change.

So if a digital economy strategy is really about a networked economy strategy, and what makes a networked economy work better is stronger and more effective connectivity, then the challenge isn’t about what happens when something shifts from physical to digital. It is about how we promote the connectivity of everything to everything in a fair manner. How do we make ourselves the most networked country, in the physical, legally and policy terms. This is the challenge.

Viewed in this frame. We do indeed have some serious challenges and are already far behind many others when it comes to connectivity if we want to be a global leader by 2017. So what are the key issues limiting or preventing connectivity and what are the consequences of a networked economy we need to be worried about? How about:

  • Expensive and poor broadband and mobile access in (in both remote and urban communities)
  • Throttling and threats to Net Neutrality
  • Using copyright as a vehicle to limit the connectivity of information (ACTA) or threaten peoples right to connect
  • Using copyright as a vehicle to protect business models built on limiting peoples capacity to connect to innovations and ideas
  • Government’s that don’t connect their employees to one another and the public
  • It’s also about connective rights. Individual rights to limit connectivity to privacy, and right to freely associate and disassociate

So what are the three things we need to start thinking about immediately?

If connectivity is the source of innovation, wealth and prosperity then how do we ensure that Canadians are the most connected citizens in the world?

1)    a net neutral broadband and mobile market place where the costs of access are the lowest in the world.

That is would be a source of enormous competitive advantage and a critical stepping stone to ensuring access to education and an innovation fueled economy. Sadly, we have work to do. Take for example, the fact that we have the worst cell phone penetration rates in the developed world. This at a time when cellphone internet access is overtaking desktop internet access.

But more importantly, I was lucky to be able to use a word processor 20 years ago. Today, not having access to the internet is tantamount to preventing a child from being able to go to the library, or worse, preventing them from learning to read. Affordable access is not a rural or urban issue. It’s a rights and basic education issue.

Equally important is that the network remain a neutral platform upon which anyone can innovate. The country that allows its networks to grant (or sell) certain companies or individuals special privileges is one that one that will quickly fall behind the innovation curve. New companies and business models inevitable displace established players. If those established players are allowed to snuff out new ideas before they mature, then there will be no new players. No innovation. No new jobs. No competitive advantage.

2)    A copyright regime that enables the distribution of ideas and the creation of new culture.

Here I am in Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, one of the biggest open source festivals in the country. Every year the city celebrates plays that, because they are in the public domain, can be remixed, re-interpreted, and used without anyone’s permission to create new derivative cultural works (as well as bring joy and economic prosperity to untold people). A copyright regime that overly impedes the connectivity of works to one another (no fair use!) or the connectivity of people to ideas is one that will limit innovation in Canada.

A networked economy is not just one that connects people to a network. That is a broadcast economy. A networked economy is one that allows people to connect works together to create new works. Copyright should protect creators of content, but it should do so to benefit the creators, not support vast industries that market, sell, and repackage these works long after the original creator is dead. As Lawrence Lessig so eloquently put it:

  • Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.
  • The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.
  • Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past.
  • Ours is less and less a free society.

A networked economy limits the past to enable the future.

3)    A government that uses a networked approach to creating a strategy for a connected economy.

An agrarian economy was managed using papyrus, an industrial economy was managed via printing press, typewriters and carbon copy paper. A digital economy strategy and managing policies were created on Microsoft Word and with email. A Network Economy can and only will be successfully managed and regulated when those trying to regulate it stop using siloed, industrial modes of production, and instead start thinking and organizing like a network. Not to ring an old bell, but today, that means drafting the policy, from beginning to end, on GCPEDIA, the only platform where federal public servants can actually organize in a network.

Managing an industrial economy would have been impossible using hand written papyrus, not just because the tools could not have handled the volume and complexity of the work but because the underlying forms of thinking and organizing that are shaped by that tool are so different from how an industrial economy works.

I’m going to predict it right now. Until a digital economy strategy is drafted using online but internally-connected tools like wikis, it will fail. I say this not because the people working on it will not be intelligent, but because they won’t be thinking in a connected way. It will be like horse and buggy users trying to devise what a policy framework for cars should look like. It will suck and terrible, terrible decisions will be made.

In summary, these are the three things I think the federal government needs to be focused on if we are going to create a digital economy strategy that positions us to be leaders by 2017. This is the infrastructure that needs to be in place to ensure that we maximize our capacity to connect each other and our work and reap the benefits of that network.

19th Century Net Neutrality (and what it means for the 21st Century)

So what do bits of data and coal locomotive have in common?

It turns out a lot.

In researching an article for a book I’ve discovered an interesting parallel between the two in regard to the issue of Net Neutrality. What is Net Neutrality? It is the idea that when you use the Internet, you do so free of restrictions. That any information you download gets treated the same as any other piece of information. This means that your Internet service provider (say Rogers, Shaw or Bell) can’t choose to provide you with certain content faster than other content (or worse, simply block you from accessing certain content altogether).

Normally the issue of Net Neutrality gets cast in precisely those terms – do bits of data flowing through fibre optic and copper cables get treated the same, regardless of whose computer they are coming from and whose computer they are going to. We often like to think these types of challenges are new, and unique, but one thing I love about being a student of history, is that there are almost always interesting earlier examples to any problem.

Take the late 19th and early 20th century. Although the term would have been foreign to them, Net Neutrality was a raging issue, but not in regard to the telegraph cables of the day.  No, it was an issue in regards to railway networks.

In 1903 the United States Congress passed the Elkins Act. The Act forbade railway companies from offering, and railway customers from demanding, preferential rates for certain types of goods. Any “good” that moved over the (railway) network had to be priced and treated the same as any other “good.” In short, the (railway) network had to be neutral and price similar goods equally. What is interesting is that many railway companies welcomed the act because some trusts (corporations) paid the standard rail rate but would then demand that the railroad company give them rebates.

What’s interesting to me is that

a) Net Neutrality was a problem back in the late 19th and early 20th century; and

b) Government regulation was seen as an effective solution to ensuring a transparent and fair market place on these networks

The question we have to ask ourselves is, do we want to ensure that the 21st century (fibre optic) networks will foster economic growth, create jobs and improve productivity in much the same way the 19th and 20th century (railway) networks did for that era? If the answer is yes, we’d be wise to look back and see how those networks were managed effectively and poorly.  The Elkins Act is an interesting starting point, as it represented progressives efforts to ensure transparency and equality of opportunity in the marketplace so that it could function as an effective platform for commerce.

Some of my favourite Vancouverites on Net Neutrality

A couple of Vancouverites can be seen below talking about the danger currently facing the future of the internet here in Canada as our government allows the telco’s to determine who will be the winners and losers of the digital age.

If you haven’t already I’d strongly encourage you to head over to the “SaveourNet.ca” facebook group and become a member.

Where are the progressives on Net Neutrality?

I’m excited to see that the Green Party has included a section on Net Neutrality in it’s platform.

4. Supporting the free flow of information

The Internet has become an essential tool in knowledge storage and the free flow of information between citizens. It is playing a critical role in democratizing communications and society as a whole. There are corporations that want to control the content of information on the internet and alter the free flow of information by giving preferential treatment to those who pay extra for faster service.

Our Vision

The Green Party of Canada is committed to the original design principle of the internet – network neutrality: the idea that a maximally useful public information network treats all content, sites, and platforms equally, thus allowing the network to carry every form of information and support every kind of application.

Green Solutions

Green Party MPs will:

  • Pass legislation granting the Internet in Canada the status of Common Carrier – prohibiting Internet Service Providers from discriminating due to content while freeing them from liability for content transmitted through their systems.

Liberals, NDP… we are waiting…

Keeping the internet free

For those worried (or not yet worried, but who should be) about maintaining the internet as a open platform upon which anyone can participate and attract an audience, please let me point you to David Weinberger’s most recent ramblings on the subject.

He makes a strong case for why companies that provide us with internet access may have to be regulated.

I recently discovered Weinberger while listening to am interview on his newest book “Everything is Miscellaneously.” Great stuff. Vancouver Public Library has been kind enough to hook me up with his other books as well… (these libraries, they are amazing! Did you know you can read a book without buying it? Crazy.)

He also maintains a blog, for those who are curious.

Google on Public Policy

I should have known it existed, but floating through delicious I just uncovered that Google has a public policy blog.

Google Public Policy Blog

Incredible.

After a quick perusal it seems the blog is partly about the interface between technology and public policy (making me their much, much, much smaller neighbour) and partly about Google’s efforts to lobby for policies that are in its (and so far, the publics’) interests.

For example, the blog tracks Google’s efforts to fight “censorship” which it defines VERY broadly. This is of concern to Google because, as the blog’s authors point out…

“…to industries that depend upon free flows of information to deliver their services across borders, censorship is a fundamental barrier to trade. For Google, it is fair to say that censorship constitutes the single greatest trade barrier we currently face.”

Of course, under this definition, the Canadian content rules (Cancon) may constitute censorship – so Google may already have a few enemies north of the border. Of course, it hardly matters. In a world of online media, infinite websites, and delivery mechanisms like Joost, CanCon rules are probably among the regulatory walking dead. How will regulating content on television and radio matter when I’ll be getting my content via the internet?

Speaking of censoring the internet. The blog also documents Google’s participation in another important fight, the battle over net neutrality. While I already knew Google’s position on this issue, it was interesting to hear their thoughts directly. And hey, when you are taking on the entire cable and telecommunication industry, it is nice to know that at least one multi-billion dollar company is in your corner.

It’s made me wonder… will Google Canada take up arms in pursuit of net neutrality here at home? Someone has to take on Rogers and Bell as they attempt to control and shape our internet experience. Will Google Canada be as active and its parent company?