UBB this: Geist outs the CRTC’s failed ISP complaints process

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Artist’s rendering of the CRTC’s Office of Consumer Welfare (client reception area)

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Two must-read documents that show why the CRTC’s UBB framework is based on a spectacular misunderstanding of traffic movement and costs in the local access cloud. The first by Geist: “Canada’s Usage Based Billing Controversy: How to Address the Wholesale and Retail Issues” (40 pp). The second incorporates a superb critique by David Hyman, Netflix General Counsel, and a costing study by Lemay-Yates (54 pp). I’ve uploaded the pdf’s: here (Geist) and here (Netflix).

Net neutrality, we hardly knew thee

At the very outset of the Son-of-UBB hearings, we’ve got new revelations about the CRTC’s cynical and incompetent implementation of its self-styled “net neutrality” rules – self-styled since the rules were never based on the goal of non-discriminatory behavior but the entirely different goal of discouraging Canadians from using the Internet. While the rest of us were looking for pencils to sharpen, Michael Geist was filing an Access to Information request to pry a stack of documents out of the CRTC. The results were posted to his site on Friday: “Canada’s Net Neutrality Enforcement Failure.” The understated title does not do justice to the results:

Although the CRTC has not publicly disclosed details on net neutrality complaints and the resulting investigations, I recently filed an Access to Information request to learn more about what has been taking place behind the scenes. A review of hundreds of pages of documents discloses that virtually all major Canadian ISPs have been the target of complaints, but there have been few, if any, consequences arising from the complaints process. In fact, the CRTC has frequently dismissed complaints as being outside of the scope of the policy, lacking in evidence, or sided with Internet provider practices.

Michael reminds us that one of the biggest problems he and others had with the framework introduced in the October 2009 decision (Telecom Regulatory Policy CRTC 2009-657) was the “absence of an enforcement mechanism.” Michael is vindicated. He publishes a list of 36 complaints that names all five incumbents, as well as a couple of resellers and friend-of-the-Great-White-North, Barrett Xplore (the source of the longest running complaint) – with ever-popular Rogers racking up half (17) of the 36 complaints. The Liberal Party wasted no time in posting a Statement on Net Neutrality, signed by Geoff Regan, Liberal Critic for Industry and Consumer Affairs, referencing Michael’s work. The Liberal position is short and sweet, and calls for three critical changes to the CRTC’s procedures: make complaints public; create penalties for violation of net neutrality rules; and conduct public audits on ITMPs.

The CRTC has declared war on consumers and we’re losing

As you soon realize from reading Michael’s post, the shocker isn’t that Canadians have complained about their ISPs. In fact, if we didn’t know better, we might wonder why Michael has dug up only 36 complaints instead of thousands. What we do know is the Commission has managed to make complaining about ISPs as difficult as humanly possible. The barriers to consumer redress created by the regulator are of four different kinds. These pretty much overlap with the critique Michael provides in his post (although I was never as sanguine as he about the virtues of the 2009 net neutrality provisions: “there was a lot to like about the CRTC approach,” as he notes in this post).

1 – Accountability. The Commission has abdicated responsibility for consumer complaints, most of which seem to have been dumped on an external body, the CCTS. CCTS is apparently responsible for deregulated areas of telecomm, on the rationale that regulated services are sufficiently protected by CRTC oversight.

2 – Secrecy. The Commission has handled the whole complaints process in secret, apparently because of its disingenuous concerns over complainant privacy rights. Hence the recourse to the Access to Information request.

3 – Onus. The Commission has put the onus for substantiating complaints on consumers and, Geist tells us, it has frequently refused to budge until complainants cough up what the Commission considers to be adequate technical evidence.

4 – Punishment. The Commission has no meaningful system of sanctions or audits in place, so the few complaints that do proceed represent a trivial cost of doing business for the incumbents. Moreover, according to Geist:

… even when the CRTC pursues a complaint, there is little actual investigation. Most activity is limited to exchanging correspondence or prodding Internet providers to respond. This typically leads to revised disclosures, rather than real changes.

Those who feel they’re being abused by their ISP deserve help since, even in a competitive market (which ours is certainly not), they are at a huge disadvantage vis-à-vis their service provider in terms of the resources they can bring to bear – time, money and, most of all, expertise. As I said in my comment to Michael’s Friday post:

“… no one outside a tiny professional community has a clue how their access service works, what ITMPs are or what they have to do with net neutrality. It takes the better part of an academic year for my students to grasp basic concepts like bandwidth and common metrics like bits per second. Statistics Canada, one of the Commission’s “data partners,” has huge problems in formulating questions for its Internet Use surveys – because so many Canadians don’t even know if their own access service is high-speed or otherwise, let alone what traffic-shaping is.”

Before we get to the technophobia, however, our hapless consumer has a big decision to make. Do we complain to the CRTC or those new kids, the CCTS?… Who?

[Time to listen to Bell make everybody queasy with their traffic congestion voodoo. Tune in later for an exciting journey into the CRTC Web site!]

D.E.