Canadian supporters of "net neutrality" say a U.S. regulator's vote to repeal Obama-era restraints on internet service providers is a step in the wrong direction because it will tip the balance of power towards large commercial interests.
The head of CIRA – the Ottawa-based organization that registers and manages the dot-ca domain names – said Thursday's vote will "chip away" at a key pillar of the internet: equal treatment for all users.
CIRA president Byron Holland said Thursday's 3-2 vote by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission will remove protections that ensured a "level playing field" for all users of the internet. The move gives internet service providers like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T a free hand to slow or block websites and apps as they see fit or charge more for faster speeds.
Holland said the good news is that the Canadian government and Canada's telecom regulator are supporters of the principles of net neutrality.
Navdeep Bains, the federal minister responsible for telecommunications, said the government supports "an open internet where Canadians have the ability to access the content of their choice in accordance with Canadian laws."
Comparing net neutrality to freedom of the press and freedom of expression, Bains said "we believe that an open and accessible internet is vital to the free flow of content and information, which, in turn, is vital to our democracy."
Rogers Communications Inc. (TSX:RCI.B) – one of Canada's largest internet and media companies – said it also supports Canada's net neutrality framework.
"We do not believe that policy changes in the United States will have an impact on Canadians' access to U.S.-based websites or services," the Toronto-based company said in a statement.
But Holland said the FCC decision will eventually have an effect globally, because so much of the world's internet traffic goes through the United States and so many of the biggest internet commercial giants are American.
"I don't think it affects the whole world as of tomorrow, but I certainly believe that over time it will have an effect," Holland said in an interview.
The FCC's 3-2 decision along Republican-Democrat party lines had been expected – with chairman Ajit Pai casting the deciding vote.
In supporting his vote, Pai said the FCC was restoring a "light touch" to regulating the internet – as has been the case for most of its existence – and will provide incentives for investments in networks and innovations.
"Let's be clear. Returning to the legal framework that governed the internet from . . . 1996 to 2015, is not going to destroy the internet," Pai said. "It is not going to kill democracy. It is not going to stifle free expression online."
But OpenMedia – a Canadian consumer advocacy group that has campaigned for net neutrality – said Thursday the FCC decision will have a negative impact on innovation, free expression and consumer choice.
"The internet doesn't have borders. There's no doubt today's vote will impact us here in Canada," said OpenMedia's Katy Anderson.
"The FCC's plan turns the internet's level playing field into a tiered system with fast lanes and slow lanes - further separating those who pay, and those who can't," Anderson said in a statement.