What does it mean to support ‘the concept of net neutrality’?

Earlier this week, The Globe and Mail carried an article in which Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said his party supported “the concept of net neutrality” and the newspaper portrayed this as being in contrast to his Innovation critic, Maxime Bernier.

Mr. Scheer added that his party supports the concept of net neutrality, the rules that require all internet traffic be treated equally. This comes in contrast to his innovation critic and former leadership rival, Conservative MP Maxime Bernier, who publicly advocated against it in favour of less government control and more free competition.

Are these positions really in conflict with each other?

Every so often, I like to refer back to the report of the Telecom Policy Review panel [pdf, 1.6MB]. While that panel reported back to parliament more than 11 years ago, most of its work still holds up today. Recall, the panel defined net neutrality in terms of “the right of Canadian consumers to access publicly available Internet applications and content of their choice by means of public telecommunications networks that provide access to the Internet.”

The panel said:

Given the complexity of this area, the rapid evolution of technologies and the market dynamics, the Panel believes the regulator here should have more discretion than in other areas of regulation. However, the Panel also believes this discretion should be exercised with a view to encouraging reliance on market forces and customer choice as much as possible. For example, there may be situations in which a customer wants an ISP to block access to particular applications or content. In addition, some customers may be willing to accept a reduced degree of access in exchange for a lower price. Such consumer choices should be respected.

In the Panel’s view, the purpose of a customer access rule should be consumer protection, and there should be a strong emphasis on ensuring that customers have the information required to make informed choices. In this way, the rule would promote the efficient operation of market forces.

Recall, this was a panel originally created by a Liberal government, that ultimately delivered its report to Maxime Bernier, the Conservative party Industry Minister at the time.

It is possible to support the principles of net neutrality, “the concept”, and still support the implementation of rules that encourage “reliance on market forces and customer choice as much as possible.”

We should not presume that supporting the concept of net neutrality is inconsistent with a light touch regulatory approach to its implementation.

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