Friday, February 23, 2018

End of the line: What the end of net neutrality in the US would mean for Camosun students

January 24, 2018 by Fred Cameron, features writer

Imagine an internet where your service provider chooses what you see. Imagine paying more to have the ability to send your mom a Facebook message. Imagine a censored web.

Without net neutrality, this could happen. And, although Canada still has net neutrality, the USA, as of December 14, is moving away from the internet freedom we’re used to. This could easily impact Canadians. It could impact Camosun students.

Now, net neutrality is relatively new; the rules were implemented under the Obama administration. Internet freedom was a given, or so I had thought when the principle of net neutrality was solidified. But now, I found myself wondering who might be affected by the repeal. The answer initially presented itself as “everyone who accesses information, communicates, and/or conducts business online.”

Which is a whole lot of Camosun students.

Once I entered the rabbit hole, it was clear that it would be impossible to forget what I had seen. I walked down Douglas Street through a sea of people who stared down at their phones to pass the time while they waited for their bus. Most things are, in some way, connected online today. The free and open internet has become a part of not only our culture, but the very fabric of society. It is largely taken for granted as a result, and it is very difficult to imagine a world without an open internet.

But it might be coming, and it might be coming sooner than we think.

FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEMS

A good percentage of Camosun students hadn’t yet been born when the world wide web was opened to the general public on August 6, 1991. It was introduced quietly, but the new technology eventually took the world by storm, ushering in a shift in the way people interact socially and conduct business. The world wide web remains the primary tool people use to communicate on the internet to this day.

Since its inception, the internet has been a decentralized network. But someone has to provide the service to people, which is where internet service providers (ISPs) come in; these for-profit companies bring with them potential conflicts of interest that threaten online freedom. What happens if, for example, an ISP also has a financial stake in a social media site so decides to limit user access to a competing social media site?

This story originally appeared in our January 23, 2018 issue.

The need for protection of internet freedom was first addressed in Canada in 1993, under the Telecommunications Act. The legislation essentially saw parliament categorize ISPs as utility providers, stating that they can’t give “undue or unreasonable” preference or influence the content transmitted on the network. The Telecommunications Act was a precursor to net neutrality.

Camosun Economics, Statistics, and University Transfer Business chair Bijan Ahmadi says net neutrality is a fundamental principle of the internet.

“Internet freedom is essential,” says Ahmadi. “The whole point of the [networking protocol suite] TCP/IP stack is that it doesn’t discriminate. Since the internet was created there has been no permission for throttling [slowing of service] and there’s a reason for that. If you have a two-tiered system, the winners will always be the people or companies with the most to invest. What we saw in the last 20 years is a shift from major media centres dominating the information we have access to to an environment where anyone can put information on the internet and anyone can access it.”

Ahmadi says the internet “is and should be public property” but what’s happening now is that it’s becoming a paid commodity.

“That is a fundamental problem in our economic system right now,” he says. “Companies create scarcity and withhold information in order to profit from it. Net neutrality is an example of that. The purpose of the internet was to connect people, and give everybody access to as much information as possible.”

It’s too early to tell at this point, but the internet freedom that so many of us take for granted may have been jeopardized, as the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 in favour of a repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order. The repeal gives American ISPs the ability to block content, to slow services offered by rival companies, and to offer “fast lanes” to paying partners. The repeal is widely seen as a victory for the major ISPs.

“The current FCC head [former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai] seems to be in the pocket of some of the major telecommunications corporations,” says Ahmadi. “They seem to have the misguided logic that if they create a non-neutral network, there will be better incentive to invest and make a better product. I’m pretty certain that that is misguided; it’s a fallacy that’s been propagated. However, it has managed to make its way to the government of the United States.”

Ahmadi says that without net neutrality people suffer because of limited options online.

“We will end up with less access to media, less news, less access to information, because there will be less incentive to produce it,” he says. “The only people who get it will be the people who pay for it.When you create a two-tiered system, there is less incentive to create growth and more incentive to contract it and support people moving to the upper tier.”

The repeal of net neutrality regulations will get a second look in senate before it becomes official. The Democrats announced on January 9 that they had exceeded the necessary 30 cosponsors necessary to secure a vote on the senate floor. The Democrats face a steep uphill battle to surpass 50 votes and move the bill past the motion to proceed. The Republicans hold a 51-49 majority, meaning they could kill the bill if they all vote against it. The Democrats must now convince two Republicans to cross over and support the motion in order to review the bill in senate. Following the review there would then be a final vote, requiring a second majority in senate. This would have to be followed by a similar vote in the House of Representatives, where the Republicans have an even larger majority (239-193), in order to move the measure to the president.

What does all this mean? Net neutrality exists as of today in the USA, and although it could be months before it’s removed from the books, it’s looking like that’s the most likely scenario.

THE CRTC STANCE

There are computers everywhere. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) says that in 2017, an estimated 77 percent of Canadians were using smartphones. As a result, the internet has almost become a part of us. Commerce, communication, and entertainment are all at our fingertips around the clock, and our relationship with the internet is fast approaching dependency.

Canada has the strictest net neutrality regulations on the planet but, even today, those principles are not enshrined in law. Internet regulation is in the hands of the CRTC—an autonomous body with the support of government—responsible for the regulation of telecommunications.

The CRTC announced in April 2017 that it would be strengthening its commitment to net neutrality in response to statements made by Pai regarding the possible repeal. CRTC manager of media relations Patricia Valladao says that the CRTC has declared that ISPs should rate data traffic equally, regardless of the content.

“That came to us from a case with Videotron unlimited music service,” says Valladao. “They were providing the service without counting it against the data plans. We called that differential pricing. This directly influenced the traffic, so the CRTC had to come up with this framework to protect the concept of net neutrality. All traffic should be given equal treatment, with little or no manipulation, interference, prioritization, or discrimination of preference of internet users by the provider.”

Differential pricing allows ISPs to act as gatekeepers, says Valladao, adding that this is what the CRTC wanted to prevent because it would give an advantage to certain content providers.

Representatives from ISPs Shaw, Bell, and Telus did not reply to requests for comment for this story.

INTO THE CLASSROOMS OF CAMOSUN

The education system has been transformed as a result of today’s connectivity. Camosun has kept up with the times, and both instructors and students have had to adapt in classrooms as they seek and share information in new ways.

Camosun College vice president of education John Boraas began his educational journey as an elementary school teacher; he later taught on reserves in rural BC and worked with immigrant groups. Boraas has been a vice president at the college for six years, and has been at Camosun for 20 years, so he’s had the chance to witness first-hand the changes brought about by the advent of the internet.

“Fundamentally, we’re still doing much of the same work here at Camosun,” says Boraas. “The hope is that we are creating a place where students can take risks and learn. The element of relationship building that is part of being an educator is still huge and primary in terms of the work we do. What’s changed, of course, is the way we access information and how we share information.”

Students and instructors evolve together in post-secondary institutions. There is such an enormous wealth of information at our fingertips that the course content sometimes changes in real time with the world. Boraas says that the world is certainly much smaller in terms of the ability to explore ideas.

“Recognizing that a student in the classroom has access to just as much information as an instructor standing at the front of the classroom has changed the dynamic,” says Boraas. “Rather than thinking that as instructors we hold all of the knowledge, we have had to develop our skills as facilitators and investigators. The ability to scan the headlines of Al Jazeera or BBC World Service is an absolute game changer.”

The recent repeal of net neutrality regulations in the US likely won’t bring about immediate change to our education system, but Boraas says the uncertainty is definitely worrisome. What concerns him most is the economic connection to access to education. The added costs that might accompany bundled internet access would create an unfair divide, says Boraas, and “for individuals who can’t afford bandwidth, access to information and support services would be diminished,” he says.

“Our neighbours to the south are grappling with an environment that is very different from anything we have ever experienced,” he says. “The values that are driving things seem to be forgetting some of the underpinning that we have held as supporters of the public library system and of universal access to information. Moving forward, there seems to be more corporate control of what is present on the internet, as well. This seems like a harbinger of what the internet is going to look like in the future.”

Boraas says that in the short term, we in Canada shouldn’t see an immediate impact of the repeal. But he says it’s “difficult not to speculate.”

“In the immediate future,” says Boraas about if net neutrality ceases to exist in the US, “we would likely see changes to the information we may not have access to. Some valuable resources may not be given a place of prominence within the web. What happens down there really does affect us, and we need to watch closely, monitor our own government, and respond appropriately.”

One movement quietly gaining momentum is the Internet Piracy Review Agency. The coalition is made up of a number of Canadian media corporations with the goal of stopping piracy with the use of a block list. Ahmadi says that the agency is in direct conflict with net neutrality, and says that this is not the first time that this angle has been used.

“We’ve got certain privacy laws that protect us,” says Ahmadi. “Do you want someone to read all of your traffic just in case you’re pirating some music? That isn’t something I want. That seems like a draconian measure, and I really don’t think that’s the main argument. I think what’s happening now with the new regime is that they’re pretty much trying everything they can to change the rules under the banner of anti-piracy. They tried this with the Protect Intellectual Property Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act in the US.”

Ahmadi says that ISPs have been traffic shaping and stopping traffic altogether “based on their desires.”

“It isn’t until we discover that they are doing it they get stopped,” he says. “The illegal content will always exist. People will move to options like the onion routing system, and they’ve developed a separate web for doing that. If you are going to shape the traffic for everybody because a few people are breaking the rules, you’re damaging our liberty. I don’t support the Internet Piracy Review Agency in any way. It just seems like a header.”

Ahmadi says that in the past there have been attempts to interpret comprehensive language around telecommunications in an effort to avoid writing neutrality laws.

“They’ve tried to use the laws that are already there and say that they already have it in place,” he says. “If you look at the ISPs, there are so few that it is essentially an oligopoly. There are examples of price fixing, and, obviously, they are a powerful lobby. As that lobby grows, it becomes more necessary for our government to respond positively and promote strong neutrality laws.”

Each and every one of us is impacted by changes to the internet, but most of us are watching quietly as our freedoms slip away. Net neutrality is the principle that allowed the internet to grow into its current form, and it is now essential in our economy. Net neutrality remains essential in maintaining free speech. The role of government should be to protect our freedom, and net neutrality is perhaps our best weapon if we want to maintain our freedom moving forward.

There is no way to tell for sure what might happen in the internet’s future. There’s still an off chance that the repeal is stopped in senate or congress. There’s still an off chance that the powers that be will act in good faith and maintain net neutrality.

And there’s an even greater chance that the internet is about to change in ways that none of us saw coming.

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