Every country that wants an open Internet is wrestling with the same net neutrality issues that we face in the US. Canada has come up with a common sense approach that and some of what they have done could be applied here.
Telecom rules are administered in Canada by the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) which has the same role as our FCC. Major telecom laws are formulated by the Canadian parliament just as they are done by our Congress, but the CRTC then has leeway to interpret the rules.
The CRTC regulates net neutrality along with other ISP behavior through its ITMP (Internet Traffic Management Practice) rules. These rules are implemented as follows:
- Somebody must come to the CRTC with a credible complaint of discrimination by an ISP. The CRTC doesn’t have a standing list of things that ISPs can’t do, but instead investigates and sometimes creates rules based upon actual cases of discrimination.
- The CRTC has developed definitions of various types of discrimination over the years. For example, they use a different standard to judge technical network issues than they do commercial issues such as how customers are billed. They have developed rules that we would label as net neutrality and any ISP practice that is imposed on users that, in effect, delays or prioritizes traffic from one type of user, source, protocol, application, content, service, or destination is likely to assumed to be discriminatory
- An ISP gets an opportunity to justify the discrimination. In order to prevail an ISP must show that:
- The practice is justified and that the solution they have implemented is narrowly designed to address a specific problem and does not cause other negative consequences;
- The practice is done in such a way as to cause as little discrimination as possible;
- They must show that any harm caused to customers is as minimal as is reasonably possible;
- And they must show that there is not some other reasonable technological solution that would achieve the same goals with less or no discrimination.
These rules have just recently been strengthened on December 17 when Parliament passed a bill that adds significant fines to ISPs that are found guilty of discrimination. Fines of up to $10 million can be levied per infraction for first offenses and up to $15 million for subsequent offenses. This adds some teeth to net neutrality and other violations.
To some degree the Canadian telecom environment is a lot like ours. Canada has three large telcos – Bell, Rogers and Telus – that each are the predominant provider in different areas of the country. The country also has smaller competitors, but like us the company doesn’t have vigorous competition in a lot of markets.
Perhaps there is something to learn from the Canadian approach. It certainly is very pragmatic and the same regulatory process is used to judge a huge array of issues. It all stems back to a law passed years ago that said that telecom providers and ISPs can’t discriminate. The CRTC has used that one rule to achieve what would we call net neutrality rules. For example, in 2005 the CRTC faulted Telus which had blocked web access to pro-union websites that were striking against it. Earlier this year they ruled against Bell Canada for charging more for access to products that compete with ones that it owns. The Canadian system builds rules based upon the cases brought to it rather than crafting a big framework of rules up-front.
The Canadian system also treats wireline and wireless the same in terms of the way they treat customers or the way they operate their networks.
The new fines are the part of the Canadian law that I find to be the most attractive. Without significant financial penalties there is not much incentive for the large ISPs to change their behavior. I would venture to say that fines of $10 million and $15 million are probably not high enough for the US Market where a carriers might make hundreds of millions by discriminating. But it’s the right concept.