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Internet Way of Networking 18 February 2020

The Internet Way of Networking and Canada’s Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review

Authors: Katie Jordan, Senior Policy Advisor; Mark Buell, Regional Vice President, North America

The Internet Way of Networking

The Internet is not like other technologies. While it is essentially just an interconnected network of networks – hence the name: Inter-net – the Internet comes with certain design properties that define its uniqueness and abilities to provide the services and the tools it does. It is these unique properties that have made the Internet a nearly unparalleled force for social and economic progress in our collective history.

It’s also why the Internet Society capitalizes the “I” in Internet. While there are many interconnected networks around the world, there is just one global Internet that enables users to communicate with anyone with a connection anywhere, regardless of the borders that surround them and, in some cases, even the language they speak. No one owns it, no one controls it, so we all get to benefit from both the known and the as yet unknown benefits of the Internet.

There are many things that make a healthy Internet work, but chief among them are its decentralization, openness, accessibility, general purpose, and ability to interoperate across networks. These characteristics directly enable its generativity, continuous evolution and the ability for any user to innovate online, including through the creation of new technologies. Remember, cloud computing services, digital entertainment, productivity tools, and social media sites all started with one or a handful of individuals creating something online.   

These characteristics were allowed to develop as a direct result of how the Internet has been governed. Its development has not been the sole preserve of governments, nor of companies or even academics. Rather, it has been managed cooperatively by a global, multistakeholder group of experts and organizations, allowing the technology the freedom to grow and flourish with the society that had created it. Most developed countries recognize and support this reality, and as a result have taken a light touch approach to its regulation domestically.

But the recommendations in the recently released Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review (BTLR) report, show the tide may be turning in Canada’s approach to the Internet. If implemented, many of those recommendations put the Internet’s future – and the future of Canada’s innovation economy – at risk. It seems to assume a decades-old approach to regulation (that of the broadcasting world) can be applied to the Internet without negative consequences. The problem is that the Internet requires a light touch to its regulation in order for it to continue to benefit the billions of people it connects.

To enable the Internet to continue to succeed, as global citizens we must all work together to ensure it is protected from overly prescript or misaligned regulatory burdens that would impact its inherent nature and move us all towards a system of semi-connected “internets”.

The problem with misinformed legislation or one that is not ‘fit for purpose’ like those recommended in the BTLR is what it will do to Canada, its economy, and its users. Not only will it alienate and isolate the Canadian economy and society but it will further undermine Canada’s ability to actively participate and contribute to such global issues like climate change or security.

The BTLR got off on the right foot, but somewhere along the line it took a wrong turn and produced recommendations that are unrealistic and unhelpful for the growing Internet economy.

As background, in June, 2018 the Government of Canada announced it would convene a multistakeholder panel to review its legislative framework for communications. This panel, among other things, held workshops and consultations in order to update Canadian broadcasting and telecommunications policy.

Then, a few weeks ago, the panel published 97 recommendations on a wide span of policy topics, including access, security, cultural sovereignty, content production and moderation, and intermediary liability. Importantly, these recommendations were accompanied by a call on the Canadian government to “urgently issue” directives to the CRTC in order to permit it to impose obligations on “Internet programming”.

We understand the panel’s urgency regarding certain aspects of Internet policy, particularly strong security and broadband deployment. However, many of the recommendations within this report would cause more harm to the global Internet, and Canadians, than they would address potential issues with it. These recommendations miss the forest for the trees and must be amended before Parliament moves forward with any legislation.

The work of panel clearly shows the benefits of a multistakeholder process. For example, the inclusion of Indigenous communities helped producing a very strong recommendations on “Affordable Access to Advanced Telecommunications Networks” is strong, with specific and impressive plans for broadband deployment in rural and remote communities and additional provisions to engage and consult with Indigenous Peoples as a routine part of deployments and related issues, including ownership of broadband networks. The further emphasis on the creation of and access to Indigenous language and cultural content is a significant step towards a more inclusive Internet environment.

However, these workshops would have benefitted from additional input from technical experts, as the recommendations regarding regulation lack an understanding of how the Internet works. In particular, some of the recommendations demonstrate an apparent lack of technical expertise and/or understanding of how certain items could (or more importantly, could not) be implemented. Many of the recommendations are so broad, vague, and sweeping that they will fundamentally impact the way the global Internet operates if implemented.

These recommendations are particularly frustrating precisely because they recognize the need for access, but then undermines the nature of the Internet future Canadians will be able to access. If enacted, these recommendations would limit some of the most exciting reasons why new users want to get access.

How these recommendations impact the Internet 

If Canada’s Parliament decides to codify the panel’s recommendations, it would move Canada further away from a robust Internet and towards a more centralized, less secure and less resilient internet. These recommendations would give the CRTC unprecedented discretion over the content created, shared, and distributed online as well as the ways in which that information is stored and secured.

Provisions such as “the CRTC can…impose reporting requirements, including with respect to financial information, consumption data, and technological processes such as algorithms, on all media content undertakings” open the door to an abuse of power and a vast over-collection of information that may ultimately make the systems and operations of companies less secure, putting users at risk. They will undermine any work Canada has done over the years to provide a safe and privacy-based environment for its citizens.

The recommendations would also directly impact the decentralization of the Internet and its freedom from interference. They would create a more centralized point of failure by giving control to the CRTC over what content is created, how it is shared, and promoted. This may further impact the security of the networks, particularly through the regulator’s mandate that “a person carrying on a media content undertaking by means of the Internet” register with the Canadian government.

Without a limit or explanation of exactly who or what would be included under this provision, the CRTC may have the power to connect significant information about individuals using the Internet for their own purposes alongside major international companies. Without information about (or any mandates for) plans to secure that information, the Canadian government may over-collect and under-protect private users’ information without obligations to secure it. While PIPEDA includes provisions to protect Canadian’s information, all too frequently the federal government’s protection of that information has proven to be lacking. Just today, we learned that the personal information of 144,000 Canadians was breached.

These provisions would likely also impact Canada’s net neutrality laws, which call for all content to be treated equally in transfer, something that could not happen with mandates to promote certain Canadian content over other global content.

Recommendations to the CRTC

It is understandable to want to ensure that all Canadians have access to a secure and open Internet, and to encourage the promotion of Canadian culture online. However, the recommendations put forth by the BTLR Panel do not move Canadians closer to those goals. Instead, they would create a walled garden for Canadian Internet users, limiting the applications of the Internet, the ability to freely share thoughts, ideas, and digital resources with the world, and negatively impact the global Internet infrastructure for all users.

There are too many possible negative unintended consequences for Parliament to act on this quickly. Instead, the CRTC should work with technologists, civil society, and academia to reassess how it can better meet its goals with targeted policies instead of the sweeping, ill-advised recommendations it has put forth.

This is why the Internet Society’s 2020 Internet Way of Networking project is a priority for the Internet Society this year. It will establish a framework by which policymakers can measure their efforts to ensure that as they work to secure and promote access to the Internet within their own jurisdictions, they leverage its fundamental properties, and do not inadvertently degrade them, weakening the global Internet for all.

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