Remember the early days of mass public access to the world wide web? Back when AOL was king, noisy dial-up modems were par for the course and having any graphics on a webpage was super-fancy? Remember in 1993 or so, when you’d connect to the Internet, download your email as quickly as possible, disconnect to read the text and write your responses, then connect and send your pre-written emails as quickly as possible? It’s the type of scenario today’s kids would find baffling and hilarious: clunky, unwieldy, expensive, and certainly not one that encouraged increased use of the technology.
Well, everything old is new again. The CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission), Canada’s telecom regulator that brought us nearly-neutrality rules just a year ago, recently issued a decision on “usage based billing” or UBB (Telecom Decision CRTC 2011-44). And the meter on your Internet may well be back on – albeit measuring bytes rather than seconds this time around.
A lot of reaction to this decision is coming out, and more analysis will follow in the coming days, I’m sure. OpenMedia.ca has a petition up, Canadian news outlets are covering the decision (and reaction) widely, and online content providers are understandably furious.
I haven’t gotten a chance to comb through the decision in detail yet, and I have to take a couple of boys to the science museum shortly, but there are a few points I want to make right off the bat. I may be back later to comment further or clarify these quick notes.
1) UBB is not the same issue as net neutrality (unless #2 applies)
The reason usage-based billing sounds so appealing, so normal, is that we do pay per item/metered amount for a lot of goods. We pay for utilities like hydro (hydro = electricity for you non-Canadians) on a metered basis, and many areas also meter water (although that is not without controversy). Frankly, the UBB idea is a brilliant example of big ISPs hearing the pro-neutrality argument that Internet should be treated like a utility and running with that concept, turning it to their advantage.
A lot of the same folk who were up in arms over net neutrality are upset about this UBB ruling. And they have good reason to be outraged. However, in strict sense, UBB is not in contradition with net neutrality (where net neutrality = slowing down of selected content en route to the consumer). My understanding of the CRTC UBB decision is that it is supposed to be content-agnostic, and only size-based. Now, this doesn’t make a lot of sense, policy-wise, anyway (as I will discuss below), but it’s not necessairly non-neutral.
However, metered use makes sense for goods for which we have a finite supply, not for things like information, which do not require rationing. Economically speaking, information is a non-rivalrous good, meaning that my use of the good (say, a webpage, journal article or TV show) does not in any way prevent you from also using & enjoying the same good.
I know, I know, there’s that old argument about your pipes getting clogged because your neighbours are downloading too much big stuff all the time, but frankly Canadian ISPs have been given ample opportunity to show evidence of this overload, and none has materialised. In fact, the logs we did see during the net neutrality hearings showed the exact opposite of congestion, making it clear that this is just a cash grab. (I do want to make the point, however, that even if congestion were present – and eventually it may exist if ISPs fail to invest in their infrastructure – that does not mean that the correct response is to slow down Canada’s Internet in response. Other industries are required to upgrade their infrastructure over time as needs change or parts get old and fail.)
2) UBB is a potential neutrality workaround
While I think the intent of the CRTC is allow metering of all Internet content equally within the same subscription plan, and to do otherwise is likely a violation of the still-untested CRTC net neutrality rules, there is a lot of scope here for ISPs to provide favourable conditions for content from which they benefit.
For example, an ISP may offer special promotional “exemptions” from UBB for content offered by their parent company – dinging, say, Netflix while exempting their own online TV/movie service. This isn’t throttling content in the “pipes” or charging a toll to content providers for content delivery, it’s charging a toll to users for content access. It’s throttling the consumer’s wallet.
3) UBB is a giant threat to access to information, and to innovation
Here’s where it gets really ugly. Imagine what it would (will?) be like when we are charged by the byte for information downloaded (and possibly also uploaded?) over our connections.
No one knows how much bandwidth they’re using so they minimize use, fearing fees. AJAX is no longer an asset; it is a liability and we disconnect from continuously refreshing websites to save bandwidth. The pressure is on for online content to be as compressed as possible, hitting the art community hard. Community wireless, such as building-wide wifi in co-op housing, becomes potentially pricey and hard to control.Schoolkids are no longer encouraged to post videos from the classroom to demonstrate and share learning. Employers start to police recreational Internet use more than ever. Coffee shops and other hotspots stop offering wifi all together, making life harder for freelancers, the self-employed, students and others without official workspaces.
Fearing the bandwidth limits on their personal subscriptions, the middle-class flock to libraries to do their downloading. Libraries cannot afford this. Libraries may not be able to afford current levels of bandwidth use, if metered, particularly academic libraries or those dealing with subject areas involving rich media (art, film, music…). I cannot over-emphasize the threat to public access to information via libraries here: libraries are currently THE places in society where anyone can access the Internet. If libraries have to limit this, ration it somehow, or lose this role, it will be a tragedy both for libraries and for the public who rely on library Internet. When public Internet access is limited or closed, public access to information, and therefore public participation in democracy, is seriously impinged. With the government increasingly moving to online-only forms, information, and dialogue with the public, how responsible is it to simultaneously move to meter Internet use?
We may move backwards in time, returning to network television for entertainment. Online course reserves could be pricier for the university than those old print custom course packages. We might actually revive the fax machine?!? Why would a country want to push its population back in time, when the rest of the world is jetting ahead with innovative multimedia content and new delivery systems? Hard to say. Just dumb policy-making? The cynic in my says it could be that those making the policy stand to benefit from old media technologies and fear the threat of the new. However we may drag our feet and try to slow things down within national borders, change and innovation are going to happen – if they need to happen elsewhere first, that will happen. Maybe the CRTC needs to attend Karen Schneider’s talk at MLA?
ETA – Well, that didn’t take long. The decision has already been appealed. Fasten your seatbelts!