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Like the Internet itself, this policy debate should be open

Geoff White is a lawyer at Geoff White Law and external counsel to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, a group advocating for universal, affordable Internet access and preservation of telecommunications rules that do not unfairly disadvantage any particular users.

What rules, if any, should govern the Internet? This is a vital question. The Internet, and the applications used through it, have become so important – so indispensable – that some Canadians report sacrificing food and medicine to be able to afford access. Therefore the debate about the Internet, like the Internet itself, should be open to all.

Yet some argue that Internet issues ought to be discussed only by engineers and service providers, and that seeking (or preserving) ground rules for the Internet is a naive exercise by ideologues. That narrative somewhat pejoratively and patronizingly posits that liberal arts graduates, lawyers and law professors are not qualified or competent to credibly discuss Internet issues – only engineers and economists and service providers are. Here are some headlines that reveal this obvious disdain:

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  • How To Spot An Arts Graduate In A Tech Debate
  • Why Internet Governance Should Be Left To The Engineers

That is wrong. Policy debates are enriched by a plurality of voices and views, and suggesting that certain perspectives do not belong contradicts the Internet's perceived facility to include everyone, but also to conceptions of open, democratic processes and evidence-based decision-making.

One of the assumed givens about the Internet is its disintermediating effect and its revolutionizing effect. That is, its ability to disrupt – to lower barriers, to make information and goods and services more accessible to everyone and to empower people. It remains to be seen if those givens hold true, however.

Why? Increasingly larger interests are coming to control not just the physical networks but much of the content on the networks and how users discover much of that content. If you use a computer or smartphone, you likely are already familiar with such control. So-called digital monopolies, or "digitopolies," are emerging, using the networks owned by telecom companies, which historically have been the monopolies of concern.

There is, as a result, more pressure from Internet users on telecom regulators and competition watchdogs to do something to ensure that the entities that provide the physical connection, and the entities that provide the services or apps, do not frustrate the disintermediating, revolutionizing and empowering potential of the Internet.

Some of the hot-button issues, not just in Canada but in many jurisdictions, are the net neutrality debate, privacy protection, mandated sharing of incumbents' fibre networks by competitors, anti-trust/competition issues and, more basally, whether we all have a right to universal, affordable, usable Internet access.

Some of these issues are currently in front of Canada's main telecom and broadcasting regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, and one of them is before cabinet.

If the Internet is to live up to its perceived promise, then no one should have a monopoly on the debate. In April, the CRTC will undertake one of its most important policy hearings in years to consider whether all Canadians should have access to a basic level of high-speed Internet service that most of us take for granted.

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This is a policy hearing about inclusiveness – as are an increasing number of Internet-related discussions – and to that end, it is critical that no voice be arbitrarily marginalized. The CRTC, to its credit, appears to appreciate this.

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