Canadian Net Neutrality Bill Fails to Neuter the Beast

Last Wednesday, NDP MP and former punk/alt-country musician Charlie Angus introduced Bill C-552 h that would amend some net neutrality provisions to the Telecommunications Act. This is in response to recent action from Bell and Rogers, throttling some peer to peer applications on the argument of network congestion. The bill is short enough for even politically apathetic mortals to read.

Law professor and tech/copyright law blogger Michael Geist gives the bill his approval:

The bill is hardly the “regulate the Internet” approach anti-net neutrality advocates would suggest, but rather is a measured response that deserves broad support.

However, reading over it myself, I believe that Geist’s opinion is short-sighted to some of the technical implementation issues and possible workarounds that the bill presents. 

The core flaw of the bill, in my opinion, is the final section which defines a “network operator” as “a person who operates or provides access to telecommunications services”. This broad definition means that anyone who operates a wireless access point, whether an ISP, school, coffee shop, community non-profit, or individual person is subject to this law. The wider these laws are applied, the more unenforceable they become, and the greater the chance that they will be used against the spirit of the law. Coffee shops and community wireless projects are not the ones fighting against net neutrality, it’s big ISPs like Bell and Rogers that are. 

Joe Bowser of VOINC/FreeTheNet community wireless project rails hard against the bill. He interprets that section 4…

(4) Network operators shall make available to each user information about the user’s access to the Internet, including the speed, limitations, and network management practices of the user’s broadband service at any given time.

…would essentially require all Internet providing coffee shops or other small operations to upgrade their hardware. Bowser’s DogOnRails http://dogonrails.net/  software implements these features; your average Linksys router does not. Bowser also points out a flaw in section 1…

(1) Network operators shall not engage in network management practices that favour, degrade or prioritize any content, application or service transmitted over a broadband network based on its source, ownership or destination.

“the first thing on this list kills the number one piece of software that all the Canadian Wifi Groups Use (Wifidog http://www.wifidog.org/)…This means that Captive Portal systems which deliver geolocated content are now illegal!…Since a captive portal redirects a user, and favours local content over other content on the internet, it means that this is now illegal for community groups to do.  This almost completely kills Community Wifi, and makes it so that only the monopolies can spend their time running around and selling pipes.”

Finally, as pointed out by copyright lawyer Howard Knopf, there are two exceptions to the bill that may permit ISPs to continue packet throttling, which is the whole action that …

(a) Manage the flow of network traffic in a reasonable manner in order to relieve congestion;

…allowing ISPs to throttle anything with the argument of “relieving congestion”, as they drag their heels on upgrading networks to meet demand.

(g) Prevent any violation of federal or provincial law.

…potentially allowing ISPs to throttle any MP3 or Torrent file due to percieved illegality.

Knopf makes light of an important fact, which I can affirm from my days working in the Alberta Legislature: “This is a private member’s bill and they rarely go anywhere.”

It’s promising to see the attention given to this issue from the NDP and organizations like SaveOurNet.ca. While we like to think of the Internet as free and open, in reality it is controlled by a handful of corporations with their own priorities. This bill would seem to do little to pull in the reins on the Cerberus that is Canada’s telecommunications cartel. The bill’s exemptions validate the throttling that has been going on, and its other requirements may impede the actions of the small few that are trying to present an alternative. Only free competition can slay the beast, and that’s something you can’t legislate.