Dialing for digital dollars: inside the Cancon sausage factory

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A little sympathy for Mélanie Joly, please.

melanie-jolyImagine if your job was to save the purveyors of Canadian content from the ravishes of American cultural imperialists, cord-cutters, cord-shavers, cord-nevers, millennials in general, digerati, incumbent ISPs, Reed Hastings, VPN developers, Jeff Bezos, Chicken Little, Hulu, cloud computing vendors, Henny Penny and Reed Hastings. It’s harder than it looks.

Contrary to popular belief, Ms Joly is doing exactly what the Minister of Canadian Heritage should be doing these days: looking for money to put into the pockets of Canada’s network content providers so they can make bigger and better Webisodes for the digital age. Yet her ideas for accomplishing this daunting task have drawn vociferous criticism. Many criticisms have focused on issues outside the Minister’s mandate and are based on little appreciation of how things actually work in her department.

So let’s head on over to the sausage factory where the sausage mandarins have been cooking up our Cancon policy for the last half-century.

We’ll start with Minister Joly’s least popular trial balloon: slapping an “Internet tax” on everyone’s ISP bill. My friends at OpenMedia have been pointing out with alarm that such a tax would only serve to raise the price of Internet access, when Canadians already pay high prices for mediocre service (you can sign their petition here).

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OpenMedia: Joly’s tax would make us as bad as Hungary

Could there be anything worse than this tax “on the Internet”? Yes! A tax on Netflix, an idea that just won’t die, thanks to Joly’s alleged plan to bring the streaming giant “into the system” – Ottawa code for we’re gonna tax the daylights outta Netflix.  Continue reading

Oh what a tangled web: Bell vs the Internet at Federal Court

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Bell Mobility’s legal team conferred on a break

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On Tuesday, January 19, the Federal Court of Appeal heard oral arguments from several parties about Bell’s Mobile TV service and whether it had violated Canadian law. In attendance were 13 lawyers, not counting the panel on the bench, which made it 16 lawyers, just shy of the spectator count in the gallery.

The spectators included several staunch advocates for the open Internet (Ben, Reza, JF, Laura, Cynthia, me), not to mention our tireless legal counsel, Philip Palmer, who agreed to represent a ragtag bunch he barely knew.  Continue reading

It’s 2015: Cancon is the aberration, not VPNs or the Internet

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WiTopia is a provider of personal VPN services

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In a Globe and Mail piece last Friday, Kate Taylor starts off by asking the wrong question: Digital content may be cheap, but who will pay to create it? Things go downhill from there.

Ms Taylor’s old-fashioned apology for Cancon, with its predictable sideswipes at “freeriding” Netflix and marauding pirates, is based on ideology rather than evidence. It completely misconstrues the role of security tools like VPNs, at a time when Canadians should be far more concerned about their privacy and security online than about shelf space on the network for domestic TV shows. Most of all, it treats the Internet like a cultural and economic aberration that’s ruining our TV system, when the aberration is Canada’s bizarre and unworkable framework for broadcasting.

Virtual private networks and why you need one

What the article says about VPNs:

“The latest scheme is to use a virtual private network, or VPN, to trick Netflix into believing you are located in the United States and can thus subscribe to the video-streaming service’s American catalogue….

Internet advocates love to preach choice, diversity and freedom – after all, a VPN can also be used by citizens in China to access content censored by their government.”

A VPN is specialized client software that encrypts online messages, and is said metaphorically to “tunnel” through the public Internet. It’s a “virtual” network because there’s no real tunnel or separate physical network. Your data packets are still co-mingling with other people’s packets, but only you and folks with the authentication tools – like a password – can read those packets. The VPN is said to be private for exactly that reason, like an office behind a locked door. Continue reading

Net neutrality now as momentous as Janet Jackson’s nipple (2)

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Happy updates (July 25)

1) Ms Marsha. One of the best illustrations of the political clout wielded by the incumbent US broadband providers lies in their ability to kill any attempt at the creation of muni broadband networks. Twenty states have passed laws banning public-sector broadband alternatives, encouraged by the industry lobbies and those who might be harmed by competition, like poor, struggling Comcast. As I note in the 2nd para below, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee is one of the great congressional champions of this free-market exercise. She is more determined than ever to ensure nobody in her own state or any state ever gets better, more affordable service. Such is her reputation that in a comment posted to a story in Ars yesterday, a reader added this apology:

A bit off topic: As a Tennessee state resident, I’d like to personally apologize to the rest of the country, hell the world maybe for that matter, for Marsha Blackburn. Another fine example of what you can buy of [sic] you are a corporation with enough money to line the right pockets.

On the upside, Brodkin’s story is entitled “FCC gets its chance to overturn state limits on broadband competition” – reporting on a petition to the FCC from a community-owned electric utility to overturn the state law barring it from providing fiber-based Internet access – in Chattanooga (Tennessee!).

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2) Transparency enforcement. And in other good news related to policing the ISPs, the FCC on Wednesday issued an Enforcement Advisory that holds two surprises. The FCC will fine any broadband provider that intentionally misleads its customers; and the rule behind this notice is one of the few survivors of the DC Circuit appeal by Verizon that vacated most of the 2010 Open Internet Order. The advisory begins thusly:

Providers of broadband Internet access services must disclose accurate information about their service offerings and make this information accessible to the public. This requirement, known as the Open Internet Transparency Rule, has been in full force and effect since 2011. The Transparency Rule ensures that consumers have access to information that helps them make informed choices about the broadband Internet access services they buy, so that consumers are not misled or surprised by the quality or cost of the services they actually receive.

I’ve uploaded the pdf here.

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How about we blame the Republicans instead? (cont’d)

As I was saying in the previous post, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler should not be getting the rap for the open Internet NPRM issued in May. Especially not for his alleged determination to push through paid prioritization, since a) Wheeler has plainly disavowed it, and b) the Notice spends far more time analyzing other issues I see as a greater threat, like the utter lack of transparency or accountability in what broadband providers sell to the public. And picking this fight with paid prioritization is going to do nothing for the pro-Internet movement in the US or elsewhere (NPRM pdf here).

rep.-blackburn-2Instead, say I, opponents of the big-business, anti-consumer school of thought should pay more attention to what the black hats are saying – who, for convenience, we’ll call “Republicans.” These guys include a broad swath of personalities, from the FCC’s two Republican Commissioners, to the incumbents like Verizon that want no regulation and lots of “flexibility,” to my favorite right-wing curmudgeon, Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee congresswoman who has succeded in getting a bill passed to call a halt to all that outrageous muni broadband that competes with Comcast, TWC et al. They have main three arguments, all of them pure sophistry, but great headline-grabbers. Continue reading

“Neutrality” ruckus prompts FCC inquiry on broadband and congestion

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“We can’t have a situation in which the corporate duopoly dictates the future of the Internet and that’s why I’m supporting what’s called net neutrality.” — Barack Obama, podcast, June 2006

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[June 19: So much for pruning – added 300 words in corrections and background.]

On Friday, June 13, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler made a short but dramatic statement headlined Broadband Consumers and Internet Congestion. Though barely 450 words long and presented outside any formal setting, Wheeler’s reaction to the public hue and cry over the reliability of retail broadband in the US marks an important step forward for end-user welfare. His announcement puts the lie to the vehement criticisms levelled at him about his betrayal of the Open Internet concept (the FCC’s term of art for net neutrality).

Many of his critics also assumed that the Wheeler FCC would never look into paid peering arrangements – well, they actually said they wouldn’t (“… the rules we propose today reflect the scope of the 2010 Open Internet Order, which applied to broadband provider conduct within its own network.” NPRM, fn 113 – pdf uploaded here). That is what Wheeler has now directed Commission staff to do (request “information from ISPs and content providers”).

While the American public are clearly confused by the net neutrality debate, and for good reason, many ISP subscribers have begun to question whether they’re getting the broadband they’re paying for – whatever the underlying business and technical issues may be. Excerpts from Wheeler’s statement follow (the full pdf is uploaded here):

“For some time now we have been talking about protecting Internet consumers. At the heart of this is whether Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that provide connectivity in the final mile to the home can advantage or disadvantage content providers, and therefore advantage or disadvantage consumers. … 

“Consumers must get what they pay for. As the consumer’s representative we need to know what is going on. I have therefore directed the Commission staff to obtain the information we need to understand precisely what is happening in order to understand whether consumers are being harmed. … 

“The bottom line is that consumers need to understand what is occurring when the Internet service they’ve paid for does not adequately deliver the content they desire, especially content they’ve also paid for. In this instance, it is about what happens where the ISP connects to the Internet. It’s important that we know – and that consumers know.” 

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Continue reading

The CRTC tries to drag our TV “system” into the 21st century

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The public hearing announced by the CRTC last week (Broadcasting Notice of Consultation CRTC 2014-190) came with two other newsworthy documents.

One is the Commission’s trial balloon on instituting a pick-and-pay system for TV subscribers, which takes the official form of the CRTC’s Response to Order in Council P.C 2013-1167 (“Maximizing the ability of Canadian consumers to subscribe to discretionary services on a service by service basis” – here). This document contains the seeds of what might be a significant reform to the channel-bundling model. Continue reading

European Parliament votes 534 to 25 for network neutrality

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Here in Canada, our idea of a free and open Internet is being held hostage by the CRTC. Its TV Talks consultation makes it very clear that a non-discriminatory Internet is going to continue to play backseat to our quaint, moribund notion of TV culture – which Ottawa thinks is still holding the country together from sea to shining sea.

In a far more vociferous debate on net neutrality, the US open Internet community has been pitted against the outré posturings of many Republicans, who want their government to stay in the business of regulating the Internet through ICANN, but condemn the FCC’s latest attempt to revive its Open Internet Order as a form of censorship, an innovation killer and a solution in search of a problem. The Republicans have ingeniously, and disingenuously, co-opted the the whole notion of a free and open Internet in their current lingo, while winning headline battles by turning every attempt to protect innovation, free speech and access to bandwidth as part of the unspeakable idea of… gasp, regulating the Internet!

PilardelCastilloVera-1Meanwhile, earlier today, the European Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority to pass the report tabled by member Pilar del Castillo Vera of Spain that outlines a strong, unambiguous framework for protecting EU citizens from unwarranted discrimination on the Internet. The European support for net neutrality, which may still wait months for endorsement by member nations, is dripping with irony. (The release page is here, excerpt below.) Continue reading

Intervening in support of Ben Klass complaint on Bell Mobile TV

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Last Wednesday was the deadline for followup comments on Ben’s Part 1 application, more accurately described as a complaint. In the text below you’ll find the main body of my intervention, minus the top and tail. I wrote about Ben’s original filing back in November: Ben Klass asks CRTC to stop Bell’s deliquency on Mobile TV. As of today, Ben’s current filing hasn’t yet shown up on the Commission’s site: I’ve uploaded it here. Of the other interventions filed this past week, two were especially critical of what Bell is being allowed to get away with. Teresa Murphy starts her comments by suggesting that Bell’s whole argument is founded on a phony distinction (para 2: her pdf is uploaded here):

It makes no sense whatsoever to treat competing services differently when the underlying technology and distribution method is the same. This is allowing vertically integrated companies to behave by one set of rules, and allowing them to treat their competitors differently, and frankly unfairly.

Continue reading