Internet 101 for election candidates: some talking points

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1 – The Internet is not TV on downers. Nor is it a one-way delivery system for professional content, to be regulated for the sole benefit of Canadian producers, program-makers, performers and their fellow travelers. They deserve to eat too, but not at the cost of a) raising protectionist barriers in cyberspace based on demonizing foreign content; b) rescinding the new media exemption order so everyone who transmits “broadcast programming” online has to pay the Cancon trolls; and c) perpetuating a supply-side framework for content policy that ignores what end-users want.

Breaking news (to me anyway): And a slap in the face to media junkies and couch potatoes from sea to shining sea. Last week at the CRTC broadcast licensing hearings, Norm Bolen of the CMPA said his members need more public funding to counter… “the heroin drip of American programming”! Marx must be spinning in his grave. The contempt these guys have for the great unwashed public – not to mention market demand – is breathtaking.

2 -The Internet is highly disruptive. In case you hadn’t noticed. It has killed off big chunks of the print industry and is now doing the same to TV – with plenty of help from the old media owners themselves. The appropriate policy response is not to apply formulas devised in the 1980s. Public policy, to be effective, must anticipate the future, and embrace the creative destruction wrought by new technologies. But not in Ottawa, where there is only the glorious cultural past, when restricting consumer choice was not only the right thing to do. It was also based on measures so arcane that the audience was never, ever presented with trade-offs: “Do you want your local broadcaster (who isn’t really local) to make more money or do you want to watch the Super Bowl ads? First let me explain how simultaneous substitution has helped enrich your life…”

3 – The Internet is intensely personal. The most popular online activities continue to be emailing, using search engines, looking for health- and hobby-related information – all personal stuff, not consuming 3rd-party content. The cultural lobbies say the computer screen is just like a TV screen, so it owes us money too. Computers are generative devices allowing end-users to create things and interact with others. A TV set, on the other hand, is a dumb piece of furniture.

4 – The Internet is not the Web. Huh? Yes, modern Web browsers are almost everyone’s gateway to the Internet. But the Internet was first deployed as a 4-host network in 1969, whereas the first Web server did not go public until 1991 – 22 years later. The Web, which is really another Internet “application,” grew in size and complexity at an astonishing rate because the Internet is a dumb transmission platform. Thousands of protocols and applications work comfortably on this platform because it doesn’t require they be optimized for it. That’s part of what is meant by the Internet being open.

5 – The Internet is based on the end-to-end principle. One of the most fundamental Internet design principles concerns the engineering decision to put intelligence, or controls, at the “edges” of the network, rather than build them into the network itself. That means resources needed by applications – like email – should as much as possible be confined to transmission end-points, leaving the lower layers to function as a dumb, minimal network (see preceding item). This is the exact opposite of the old “smart network, dumb terminal” model – which happens to include the PSTN, the public switched telephone network. For many years in the development of the Internet, telephone engineers scoffed at the end-to-end principle, which has turned out to be incredibly good at encouraging innovation. On the other hand, the Bellheads have had their revenge, as Ma Bell and her sister incumbents (cablecos included) now control most of the Canadian and US market for residential Internet access. They have both the motive and the ability to flout the end-to-end principle through the manipulation of data caps, unregulated retail pricing, deep packet inspection, traffic-shaping and other measures – many sanctioned and encouraged by the CRTC (see next).

6 – The Internet and its users are victims of the CRTC’s incompetence. Usage-based billing, UBB, is not about network congestion, actual costs or even price-gouging. Sure, Bell’s George Cope told analysts the company’s Internet services revenue had grown mostly thanks to bandwidth usage charges, and those charges had grown mostly because of increased video traffic (GeistonUBB, pp. 6-7). But UBB is a regulatory creation stemming from the October 2009 ITMP decision (Telecom Regulatory Policy CRTC 2009-657) – whose chief purpose is to discourage Canadians from using the Internet. To make UBB punitive enough, the Commission agreed charges would have to be much higher than economic costs. The ITMP framework has had the opposite effect of that promised: it has degraded, not enhanced, the online experience for Canadians and punishes light – not heavy – users through unregulated retail pricing (see my analysis of Rogers’ rate card in this post from last October). Even the new proceeding on UBB has begged the main question (i.e. it assumes what is to be demonstrated): the PN says it will stick by the “principle” that hogs must not be subsidized by light users (Telecom Notice of Consultation CRTC 2011-77). So much for evidence-based policy.

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D.E.

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