As the Internet has become an increasingly important part of many people's lives, the idea of "Net neutrality" has gone from being just an interesting concept to a rallying cry for those who believe that communications companies in Canada and the United States wield too much influence over the Internet and how we experience it.
But the accusations aren't always valid.
One of the latest incidents to spark concern in Canada was a move by Rogers Communications Inc. (NYSE: RG; Toronto: RCI) -- the country's largest cable operator -- to redirect Internet users to its own internally generated Web page when they type in a malformed URL. Instead of viewing the generic "404" error page that most Web browsers display, the Rogers page has ads on it, links to Rogers content, and a Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq: YHOO) search bar.
As a major player in Canada's communications landscape -- a landscape that consists of relatively few (some would say too few) companies -- almost every move that Rogers makes is subjected to a lot of scrutiny, as it should be. In this case, however, the concern from Net neutrality advocates seems like an overreaction.
In its simplest form, the principle of Net neutrality states that Internet service providers should function as simple pipes that carry data to users and avoid doing anything that either interferes with specific kinds of data or gives some data preferential treatment.
Both Rogers and BCE Inc. (Bell Canada) (NYSE/Toronto: BCE) -- the country's largest telecom carrier -- have come under fire in the past for breaching that principle by engaging in what is called "traffic shaping" or "packet filtering," which involves giving certain kinds of data priority over other kinds.
The carriers argue that they have to use these methods to ensure that their networks function properly, and that certain kinds of data -- peer-to-peer file sharing, for example -- put too much of a strain on their systems and can cause a degradation in service for some users. Bell Canada is currently trying to defend this practice to Canada's federal broadcast regulator.
The main objection to traffic shaping is that it allows an ISP to choose which types of data are more important, which could (theoretically) lead to the provider favoring its own content or data over that from other sources. For example, some ISPs in Canada and the U.S. have been accused of using such techniques to ensure that their voice-over-IP services work better than those services offered by competitors.
That's a legitimate concern. But does the simple error-page redirection that Rogers is currently engaged in fall into the same category? Not really. In this case, the ISP is simply offering a service -- for free -- that is designed to help its customers find what they're looking for. It isn't squeezing out competition in that sense, because there isn't anyone whose business involves providing such information.
Google offers custom error pages as well (if you use Internet Explorer and the Google toolbar), but the company hasn't been criticized for it, likely because it isn't a giant communications company and ISP. It is, however, by far the largest player in the online search and advertising industry, which means it is hardly altruistic when it comes to increasing traffic to its services.
Rogers came under some fire last year for another practice that some said was a breach of Net neutrality principles: The ISP started inserting messages to users into Web pages when a user was getting close to reaching his or her "bandwidth cap" or usage allotment for the month. The messages appeared at the top of a Web page, although they just pushed the existing content down rather than actually obscuring it.
In both that case and the current situation, what Rogers has done isn't really in conflict with Net neutrality's core principles. Not only are both of these events designed to help Internet users, but they also don't affect either the content of the site in question or the ability of other companies to communicate with or reach the user.
If Net neutrality is an important principle worth upholding, then we should make sure that what we're criticizing fits the description, or the concept will become so vague as to be meaningless.
— Mathew Ingram, Technology writer for The Globe and Mail in Canada