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The CRTC, UBB, and the Politics of Digital Space


Pat yourselves on the back, Canadians. Enjoy the victory—a great one, for sure—but don’t get complacent. This isn’t over yet.
That was the message OpenMedia.ca was trying to get across this morning. The victory, for anyone currently living under a rock, is in the fight against the CRTC’s decision to permit leviathans like Bell and Rogers to impose usage-based billing, or UBB, on smaller, independent ISPs, many of whom lease bandwidth from these larger companies. On a per-byte basis, bandwidth caps would shrink from two hundred gigabytes to twenty-five gigabytes—in the case of Chatham, Ontario–based Teksavvy [PDF], for example—and users would face charges not unlike those imposed on data transmitted via mobile networks. Effectively, it would put an end to the idea of a free, open internet, turning it instead into a metered, for-profit enterprise of the corporate telecom giants. Competitiveness in the online marketplace would be crushed. For those working in the digital domain, the resulting restrictions wouldn’t necessarily kill innovation, just severely curtail it by degrees of affordability. What is now a mostly equal playing field would become a system of tiers.


Overnight, Facebook lit up like a Christmas tree. “OK, I know we are a lazy, complacent generation,” wrote one user, “we love to express outrage on forums, and then never take any action. But they are coming for our internets, people.” The previously unengaged emerged from the shadows. A year ago, Facebook triggered waves of protests against Stephen Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament, heralding a new era, some said, of grassroots organizing in the digital realm. This time, the same thing happened—not just a defence of democracy in its official capacity, but of the new, innovative, and continually evolving ways we facilitate it in the twenty-first century.
So it just figures that it was a member of Harper’s cabinet who threw a little weight behind the push.
As early as January 20, the federal parties were also sounding off on the issue of usage-based billing, one that was gaining rapid momentum among Canadians. “We’ve seen this all before with cell phones,” said Charlie Angus, the NDP’s digital affairs critic, in a press release. “Allowing the internet service providers to ding you every time you download is a rip-off. Canada is already falling behind other countries in terms of choice, accessibility and pricing for the internet.” In Ontario, users were writing their members of parliament and members of provincial parliament, piling on the pressure, letting government know in no uncertain terms that this was simply unacceptable. By February 1, the Liberal Party had announced its opposition to the CRTC’s decision, the same day that Harper announced a review. The CRTC suddenly found itself on the wrong side of a line in the sand. On the other, it seemed, was nearly everyone in Canada and their elected representatives, with the exception of friendly industry faces.

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The CRTC’s UBB decision is a major threat to net neutrality, an issue at the heart of protests like this one from 2008. Photo by JasonWalton.


Confronted by this near-unanimous upswelling, Tony Clement, Harper’s minister of industry, lowered his government’s boot with a tweet on Wednesday night. The CBC’s Rosemary Barton put it to the Tories’ most social media-friendly politician, asking Clement whether he would intervene if the CRTC didn’t back down from its decision. A pertinent question on the eve of the regulatory body’s parliamentary grilling, it also carried all the overtones of a burgeoning election issue—a promising one for the party with the most influence. “True,” Clement replied. “CRTC must go back to the drawing board.”
“It’s a huge issue for a country that wants to move forward on the internet for jobs, for creativity, for innovation,” Clement said on Thursday morning, somewhat more verbose. UBB, he said, is the wrong way to handle problems arising from bandwidth capacity, “[forcing] a business model on independent service providers if they do not want to use that model.” And while he admitted a “healthy balance and tension” exists between the government and the CRTC, Clement conceded that “there are times when we, acting on behalf of government, have to weigh in. That’s our responsibility and that’s our role.”
And just like that, Canadians have been heard. The issue’s done with, in the can. Right?
While noting that Clement’s announcement was a “massive win” for the 330,000-plus signatures on its Stop The Meter petiton, OpenMedia.ca’s response was optimistic, although measured in tone. “In short, this is an amazing and unprecedented victory for innovators, creators, and Canadians of all stripes,” was the official word this morning. “[But] we are not at the finish line.”
It’s an issue whose resolution can’t be accepted quickly, considering the far-reaching threat posed by a metered internet. With a usage-based billing system, “it’s going to be a lot more difficult for citizens to come together online,” Lindsay Pinto, communications manager at OpenMedia.ca, told Torontoist. “The cost of data and the threat of punitive fees will make creating ‘viral’ videos, for example, much less feasible for the average Canadian. Internet metering will act as an impediment to user-generated content.” Even worse, to echo net-neutrality fears going back to the honeymoon days of YouTube, “[internet metering will] pave the way for big media to dominate many discursive realms.” At a time when the political role of corporations is on the rise, the fight against UBB is a critically pivotal one, keeping such control and influence out of the public domain. Decisions made and actions undertaken today mark the thin, precarious line between what is and what’s yet to be.
Faced with an array of hypothetical endgames, Pinto offered her own worst-case scenario. “The internet becomes prohibitively expensive, online content is monopolized by major corporations in the same way that televisual content is, and the potential for the internet to be the great facilitator of cultural and democratic discourse and action is eroded.” It’s what happened with TV, after the glory days when broadcast news held a public light to the foreign policies of the Vietnam era. “But we’re not there yet,” Pinto added.
More positively, we’re also not there with today’s announcement, but we’re getting closer. “Considering a lack of details, and a huge spectrum of possible actions before the government,” Pinto wrote, “OpenMedia.ca vows to increase the pressure until we see an end to unreasonable Internet usage fees, and big telecom is held accountable to the public.” On the site itself, Steve Anderson, OpenMedia.ca’s national coordinator, was more pointed about what comes next. “The next round will likely be with the CRTC,” he wrote. “We have momentum behind us, we have the government and major opposition parties behind us, [and] we have over 330,000 of us who have taken a firm stand in favour of an accessible open Internet.”
Which means that rallies like tomorrow’s, held from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at Yonge-Dundas Square, will go ahead as scheduled. Politicians will continue to seize upon the rippling discontent as a wedge issue, particularly when a spring election looks increasingly likely. And that means keeping an eye on those who make grand, populist statements, especially surrounding enormous issues uniting voters across the political spectrum, and especially when those who make such statements aren’t exactly an open internet’s best friend themselves.
But at least playing David to many corporate Goliaths hasn’t been all doom and gloom. “Big Telecom lobbyists,” Anderson concluded, “are waiting to go back to business as usual: the backroom meetings, the captured regulator, the uninformed citizenry. Let’s not go back there—this has been too much fun.”

UPDATE: February 3, 5:50 PM Just after this story was posted, we learned from 680 News that the CRTC has announced it will delay making changes to internet billing practices for sixty days. An update was also added to the Facebook page for tomorrow’s protest at Yonge-Dundas Square. Despite the two-month reprieve, the event will still go ahead but will now take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
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