On Thursday, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to reverse rules that regulated internet providers like utilities, freeing providers to block or slow access to content and services online.
U.S. policy-makers have spent the past 15 years fighting over the distinction. The most recent dust-up was in 2015, when the Obama government introduced net neutrality rules that are now expected to be overturned.
In Canada, the idea that internet service providers should treat all internet traffic equally hasn’t been quite as controversial.
There are legal and political reasons for that. But each of the lawyers, academics and activists who spoke with CBC News this week pointed to one factor in particular: the FCC is a far more partisan organization than its Canadian counterpart, the CRTC.
That has a big impact on how decisions in the U.S. are made.
The party line
“The FCC is actually distinctly political,” explained Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa. “So in the U.S., you get these potential swings in policy depending on who happens to be the president.”
The FCC is made up of five presidentially appointed commissioners, one of whom is the chairman — currently Republican Ajit Pai. Up to three of those commissioners can be members of the same political party, which means the FCC tends to lean either Republican or Democratic depending on the government of the day.
It’s not quite the same here in Canada. Although commissioners are still appointed by the government, the CRTC operates as more of an arm’s-length judiciary, and makes decisions based on evidence submitted during public consultations, rather than along party lines.
“It’s treated more like a court process than like a political arena,” said Laura Tribe, executive director of Open Media, which advocates for a free and open internet. “[That’s] not to say there aren’t politics involved, but it’s not partisan to the same extent as it is in the U.S.”
It also helps that Canadian politicians of all stripes have actually supported net neutrality for some time — unified, in part, by the lack of competition in our concentrated telecommunications landscape. There’s a shared belief that regulation can help keep these companies in check, say Tribe and Geist.
But differences in Canada’s telecommunications legislation play a role,…