It used to be that the first targets of an authoritarian government were television and radio broadcasters. Now it’s the Net, its users and ISPs they need to communicate.
Just look at the incipient revolution in Egypt: in a failed effort to cut the growing protest movement off at the knees, the police-state government of Hosni Mubarak shut down the country’s Internet Service Providers.
The effort failed, of course. The protests have continued and grown despite the fact Egypt was effectively without Internet connections for a week. The speed and reach of Twitter, Facebook and mobile networks may have helped facilitate the unprecedented mobilization of the pro-democracy movement at its beginning, but the root causes of the popular uprising remained. The need to live free from fear of abduction and torture by one’s own government is a powerful motivating factor; the ability to tweet it is somewhat extraneous.
In Canada last week, we were witness to own online uprising against powerful interests that would, so the accusation goes, throttle our access to the Internet. The advent of so-called usage-based billing (UBB) imposed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) at the behest of big ISPs such as Bell or Rogers sparked an online movement and various petitions.
Universal UBB effectively ended the offer by smaller ISPs of unlimited Internet access. Now, organizations like OpenMedia charged, downloading anything more than 25 gigabytes a month would lead to prohibitive extra charges on the monthly bill under the UBB regime. The exploding phenomenon of online television – Apple TV or Netflix, for example – eats huge chunks of broadband, and a regular user could see big costs on the Internet bills in the near future.
The evil here is that corporations like Bell and Rogers have a conflict of interest. Bell also has interests in a television network – CTV – while Rogers of course is primarily a cable TV provider. They have an overwhelming motive to limit the threat posed by online competition for television viewers. If Net users can watch what they want when they want for a fraction of the cost, both Bell and Rogers stand to lose billions.
The implications for more technologically isolated regions such as Eeyou Istchee are huge. Internet access has revolutionized communications for northern First Nations like the James Bay Cree over the past decade. The connection speeds are still slower than down south, but a whole new world has nonetheless opened up – looking at the Cree romance with Facebook is evidence enough of that.
But if big ISPs manage to limit the use of the Net or make it so cost-prohibitive to use online services like video chat or downloaded movies, then that progress (as much as writing “LMFAO” on everyone’s photos or “as you were” in your status update can be considered progress) is threatened.
The reality is more nuanced, however. Just as the pro-democracy movement in Egypt managed to do just fine without the Internet, thank you very much, so too will we do under a usage-based billing regime – especially since the Conservative government, looking at an election in the near future, appears set to overturn the CRTC decision.
But there is so much rhetoric being spouted in this fight that I decided to go to the source: my bill from Bell Sympatico. While I pay a fairly hefty price, it rapidly became obvious that I would never be affected by extra costs under a UBB regime, even if I watched a Netflix movie every day. I’d have to watch three or more every single day to get close to my monthly download limit of 300 GB.
The devil is in the details. Bell and Rogers should be closely regulated because of their corporate monopoly power over so many people’s lives. Countries like Canada need extensive telecommunications networks to stay connected. In Egypt, connectivity has been a useful tool to re-establish democracy. But beware the prophets of e-doom. The sky isn’t falling quite yet.