Along with fellow Internet Superheros (Webby Award winning Matt “SaveTheInternet” Thompson, Amber “GeekMedia Girl” MacArthur, Jason “The Digital Sage” Roks and Kris “Open Source Rockstar” KrÃ¼g), I facilitated a community townhall conversation at nextMEDIA’s final session on Sunday to raise awareness of the net neutrality issue among independent new media content producers. I’m really happy with how it went and proud of our band of heroes. (Tip: nextMEDIA Banff: great conference in a beautiful location!)
With the support of nextMEDIA organizer Mark Greenspan, we wanted to open a conversation that has been under the radar in Canada – mainly in geek circles and in backrooms until now. Megan Cole thanked us and told us it was the best session at nextMEDIA and should have opened the conference – we were flattered. More importantly, we have gathered together a new community of content creators who want to continue the conversation and we committed to doing that. Mission Accomplished. Great work, Superfriends!
Excitable funding-seekers missed out on the fun to listen to Heritage Minister Bev Oda’s announcement of renewed funding for the Canada New Media Fund, but will no doubt hear the buzz. Video will be published of the session, which I’ll share/link to when it’s available. (more after the jump)
Impressions from the Townhall
It was a vigorous, engaged and at moments tense discussion. We had a really engaged and diverse audience who wanted to understand more about what was going on, what the carriers were up to, what the real issues were and what it meant to them as indie new media content producers, as citizens and as people passionate about the future of culture. Special thanks to Michael Hennessy of Telus for being the only representative of a major carrier brave enough to attend the open session, and he became a de-facto panel member as a result. We all appreciated his participation.
In our panel intro remarks, I framed the issue as being driven by the rising tide of Internet video/television: Joost and its brethren. If 2006 was the year of user-generated content, then 2007 appears to be the year of Internet video. The growth and opportunity are phenomenal, particularly for independent creators. But that growth also introduces many difficult issues: Is there sufficient broadband infrastructure to meet demand? Do carriers with broadcast and online portal assets have the right to throttle, degrade or otherwise discriminate against competing video content providers distributing over the Internet or to give preferential service levels to certain paying partners?
During the townhall conversation, Hennessy made a good point that a lot of the net neutrality dialogue isn’t really helpful from the carrier point of view because much of it is speculative and not sufficiently “fact-based”.
He has a point. Most reports of bandwidth throttling of P2P, encrypted traffic and VOIP are anecdotal. We need facts. That information is held inside the carriers themselves and I know many in the community would love to know those facts. What traffic is currently being shaped and how exactly? What bandwidth caps are in place, are consumers aware of them, what are the overage fees and how will they impede growth of internet video distribution? What are the current infrastructure’s limitations? What are the plans for building out the infrastructure to meet rising consumer demand without discriminating between different classes of content?
Hennessy kindly pointed out that the Telecommunications Act 27 (2) has provisions against “unjust discrimination”, which provides a legal recourse for actions that unreasonably (what is unreasonable?) break the common carrier principle. At the same time, Hennessy argued that carriers should be able to offer Quality of Service to content providers willing to pay for priority access to the carriers’ customers on that limited bandwidth. Matt Thompson pointed out the contradiction of this statement from the idea that carriers cannot discriminate.
Matt and Jason also made a point of emphasizing the innovation argument – that allowing preferential treatment for incumbents may result in killing off the next Google before it has a chance to fly. I look forward to seeing the video of the townhall soon for the many other excellent comments from the community.
An Offer and an Opportunity:
The large carriers in Canada have a unique opportunity to take a new and proactive approach to public engagement on this issue. It starts with conversation, transparency and trust-building. A new approach could be the path to a “New Deal” for broadband – a path to a better Internet for everyone, for free speech AND free enterprise.
I invite the carriers to join an open creative community of independent Internet content creators, enablers and consumers to co-create a future that works for all of us.
Tell us your challenges. What will happen if 10% of television consumption shifts to the Internet with the advent of Joost and other Internet television platforms? What are the implications to the broadband infrastructure? How are we building the network of the future? What is the opportunity for carriers, under a Corporate Social Responsibility banner, to proactively support and advocate for both free-speech and free enterprise on the Internet on behalf of their independent creator-customers?
I wonder if the Toronto Transit Camp model could be useful? (i.e. “not a complaints department, but a solutions playground”) Thoughts?
UPDATE: Dogged by costs, Internet providers seek price hikes, in today’s Globe and Mail.