Bandwagons are easy to jump onto. “Net neutrality” is one of them. The idea is that a neutral communications medium is essential to our society – that allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online will fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the Internet such a success. To broadband carriers this essentially means that rather than allowing them to manage their networks in order to handle enormous flows of certain types of bandwidth-hogging traffic, they should simply keep adding more network capacity to stay ahead of usage demands or let their networks run less efficiently –  and become clogged if necessary – to serve the higher purpose of equally-imperfect access to the Internet for all.

Many stakeholders on the Internet already have sided with net neutrality. For example, Google is a big proponent. According to Google,

Fundamentally, net neutrality is about equal access to the Internet. In our view, the broadband carriers should not be permitted to use their market power to discriminate against competing applications or content. Just as telephone companies are not permitted to tell consumers who they can call or what they can say, broadband carriers should not be allowed to use their market power to control activities online.

Not surprisingly, broadband carriers see the future of the Internet a bit differently. Here’s a flash animated video from the [update: former?] U.S. based advocacy group, Hands off The Internet, funded by major U.S. carriers, making the point that politicians should not replace network administrators and that government’s role here, properly understood, is not to tell them how to manage their networks – rather, it’s to make sure the customers have alternatives if they’re unhappy with their Internet service.

In a recent development to the ongoing net neutrality debates, the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) has filed a formal Application with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), asking the CRTC to stop Bell Canada from rolling out traffic shaping technologies on the network space it sells to CAIP members. Traffic shaping identifies and slows down certain types of Internet packets – usually peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic used for large file transfers – giving priority to other types of data. This is because large file transfers clog the networks, leaving slower connection speeds for others. The CAIP argues, however,

Bell’s traffic shaping measures have impaired the speed and performance of the wholesale ASDL access services that it provides to independent ISPs and other competitors. Data transfer speed is an intrinsic characteristic of a high-speed Internet access service and at the speeds observed by CAIP and its ISP members since Bell’s implementation of traffic shaping measures that are at issue in this Application, [the Gateway Access Service] no longer serves its intended purpose of providing reliable, 24×7 high speed access to Internet content.

Smaller ISPs rightfully are concerned that they won’t be able to live up to promises they’ve made to their customers as resellers, because of the throttling being done by Bell. Plus they want to provide an alternative to Bell’s throttled service by having their networks remain unthrottled, in effect to maintain high speed havens for P2P traffic (n.b. the P2P platform is completely legal).

Nonetheless, the CRTC routinely has taken the position since 1999 that it does not regulate the Internet. The reason is that regulation of new media on the Internet is seen as an inhibitor for growth and likely to put Canada at a competitive disadvantage with the rest of the world. Therefore it seems unlikely that the CRTC is going to step forward now with a position that supports the concept of net neutrality. That type of initiative is going to have to come from parlaiment, not the CRTC.

The real crux of the matter seems to be one of competition and choice in the marketplace, to make sure customers have real alternatives if they are unhappy with their Internet services. In that sense, if Bell is unable or unwilling to work out a technical solution to get P2P traffic back up to speed (e.g. like the network management plan that the Wall Street Journal reports has been worked out between Comcast and BitTorrent regarding similar complaints of P2P traffic being throttled in the U.S.), it should be required to allow re-sellers the ability to obtain wholesale unthrottled access – i.e. to stop throttling what it sells to re-sellers – to let the customer decide the kind of Internet access the customer wishes to use, rather than having that decision entirely “shaped” by Bell.