#CyberFLASH: Canadian Battle over “Zero Rating” Places Net Neutrality Safeguards at Risk

03748212-700x500Net neutrality emerged as a top Internet policy issue over 10 years ago as some Internet service providers openly discussed creating a two-tier system with a fast lane for websites and applications willing to pay additional fees and a slow lane for everyone else. The companies maintained that consumers would benefit from the two-tier approach by gaining faster access to premium content.

Internet users and emerging technology companies banded together to oppose the approach, arguing that all traffic should be treated in an equal manner regardless of content, source, or destination. They noted that the two-tier approach could lead to unfair competition and an inability for start-up companies to challenge established players.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that Internet users won the policy battle and years later net neutrality rules can be found worldwide. Indeed, the importance of an “open Internet” was recently affirmed by Navdeep Bains, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Development, who told an international conference that the economy depends upon it.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) established its policy response in 2009 with the Internet traffic management practices. The rules restrict content blocking or slowdowns and require ISPs to disclose how they manage their networks.

The net neutrality debate has shifted in recent years to the issue of “zero rating” or “differential pricing”, references to network providers exempting certain content from data charges. While the traffic management practice has flipped from charging extra for content to offering access to content without data charges, the fundamental concerns are largely the same.

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