Canada cracks down on zero-rating in two net neutrality rulings

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The list of countries that find zero-rating to be a violation of net neutrality just keeps on growing, with Canada the latest to crack down on the practice.

“Zero-rating” or “positive price discrimination” refers to carriers providing certain services or apps for free or at a cheaper rate than they charge for regular internet traffic. Many (including me) see this as a net neutrality violation, because it treats different services unequally and damages the ability of non-zero-rated services to find an audience.

It’s a much more subtle net neutrality violation than straight-out blocking or throttling certain services, though, which is why some – such as the European Commission – don’t tend to see it in that light.

Apparently, Canada does see zero-rating as a threat to the “open internet”. On Thursday, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) issued a decision against carriers [company]Bell Mobility[/company] and [company]Vidéotron[/company], which were exempting their own Bell Mobile TV and illico.tv mobile TV services from their regular data plans (for a small monthly fee of around $5) while counting traffic for rival services against those data caps. Video content is, of course, about as data-heavy as it gets.

Vidéotron has until the end of March to confirm that it has withdrawn its mobile TV app as it promised it would, and Bell has until April 29 to stop its violations. According to the CRTC, the result will be “an open and fair marketplace for mobile TV services, enabling innovation and choice for Canadians.”

Pro-net-neutrality organization OpenMedia.ca reacted with delight, saying the ruling “sets a precedent for mobile providers across Canada.” The group quoted telecoms researcher Ben Klass, who filed the original complaint over Bell’s behavior, as saying:

In a world where Bell could charge 800% more for competing services it seemed unlikely that innovation could thrive. It’s heartening to see the CRTC side with Canadians and strike down this unfair practice.

Over the last week, Dutch and Slovenian regulations have hammered carriers for zero-rating violations, although those cases involved the favored services of commercial partners such as [company]HBO[/company] and [company]Deezer[/company], rather than the carriers’ in-house efforts. Chile has also banned operators from offering services such as [company]Twitter[/company] and [company]Facebook[/company] for free, and Norway’s regulators have advised the same.

A study by bandwidth management firm Allot Communications last year found that half of mobile carriers around the world are now zero-rating certain traffic, most frequently Facebook’s. The practice is also key to developing-world schemes such as Facebook’s Internet.org – they’ve struck deals with carriers that see selected services offered for free, with the idea being that people will start paying for the wider web once they’ve seen what it has to offer.

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