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What is Net Neutrality?

October 21, 2009

Excerpt from LR Shade, “Skimming the Cream, Throttling the Tubes, Doing the Policy Laundering, and Jiving to the Supply-Side Boogie: Challenges to the Right to Communicate in Canada”, in Aliaa Dakroury, Mahmoud Eid & Yahya R. Kamlipour, ed., The Right to Communicate: Historical Hopes, Global Debates, and Future Premises (Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co., 2009).

Network neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the internet be treated equally and without discrimination by network service providers, regardless of its source, ownership, content, or destination. Net neutrality means non-discrimination. It means that all internet content should be treated fairly and equally. Net neutrality provisions prevent service providers (telephone and cable companies) from speeding up, slowing down, or blocking online content or services based on their source, ownership or destination. All content and applications must be considered equally. “Throttling” and “traffic shaping” by large ISPs who single out specific kinds of data to treat differently erodes the principle of net neutrality. A discriminatory internet, e.g., without net neutrality, would:
− tend to privilege commercial content such as ‘infotainment’ and entertainment -oriented content
− put at risk non-commercial, educational certain political, and independent content
− put at risk Canadian content, particularly French language and minority languages.

There are also freedom of speech implications: could network providers interfere with customers’ access to certain sorts of content? There are also privacy implications: could network providers’ discriminate against internet traffic based on “deep packet inspection”, e.g. their ability to monitor, analyze and filter the content of customers’ internet transmission to allow for the creation of subscriber data that can be mined for commercial gain? (see

The net neutrality debate is now ramping up in Canada. In a speech at the 2008 Canadian Telecom Summit, Konrad von Finckenstein, Chairman of the CRTC said with respect to net neutrality: “Fundamental issues of technology, economics, competition, access and freedom of speech are all involved . . . it is one of the polarizing issues of the day. It will have to be addressed and debated by all of us” (CRTC, 2008). This admission by von Finckenstein acknowledging the need for a major public consultation on net neutrality was greeted by many public interest groups and citizens favorably, given how this rather obscure yet essential element of internet operability had galvanized a variety of supporters and “strange bedfellows” in the U.S. and Canada (Scott, 2008).

In Canada, activism for net neutrality has taken many forms (blogs, listservs, and educational websites) with policy forums and rallies mobilized to raise public awareness. One notable activist group is, consisting of a coalition of over 250 citizens, and approximately 65 businesses and public interest groups, coordinated by the Campaign for Democratic Media (CDM). In May 2008 organized a protest on Parliament Hill, attracting approximately 300 citizens who chanted “Our net not for sale,” and “Whose net? Our net”, while Charlie Angus of the Federal NDP announced his introduction of a private member’s bill for net neutrality principles in Parliament. Angus’ bill was precipitated by the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) complaint to the CRTC over Bell Canada’s decision to expand its internet ‘traffic shaping’ policy from retail to wholesale internet service provider (ISP) customers. More than 1500 letters in support of CAIP was submitted to the CRTC, with lengthy submissions by public interest groups including CDM (Shade, 2008). While the CRTC denied the CAIP application against Bell Canada (CRTC, 2008, November 20) it did announce a hearing on net neutrality hearing to look at various issues related to traffic shaping and management, network consumption, and bandwidth management and consumption. Net neutrality is clearly a defining issue for communication rights in the 21st century. As Steve Anderson, the Coordinator for the Campaign for Democratic Media (CDM) writes, the net neutrality battle positions large telecommunications companies against “online innovation, free speech, small business, independent media, artists, and civil society on the other… The question is who will control Canada’s digital soul?” (Anderson, 2009).

Anderson, Steve. (2009, January 8). Who Will Control Canada’s Digital Soul? Vue Weekly. Retrieved on 29 January 2009 from: (

Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). (2008, June 17). Notes for an address by Konrad von Finckenstein, Q.C., Chairman, Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to the 2008 Canadian Telecom Summit, Toronto. Retrieved on 29 January 2009 from: (

Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). (2008, November 20). CRTC Denies CAIP Application, But Will Examine Internet Traffic Management Practices (Press release). Retrieved on 29 January 2009 from: (

Scott, Ben. (2008). “Advocacy and Activism in Media Policy: A Case Study in Media Reform”. In Marita Moll and Leslie Regan Shade (Eds), For Sale to the Highest Bidder: Telecom Policy in Canada, (pp. 83-92). Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Shade, Leslie Regan. (2008). Public Interest Activism in Canadian ICT Policy: Blowin’ in the Policy Winds. Global Media Journal (Canadian Edition) 1(1). Retrieved on 29 January 2009 from: (

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