May 16, 2011 5 years 9 months ago

The Cartt.ca INTERVIEW: OpenMedia.ca's Steve Anderson talks about its creation, funding and UBB

IT’S ALL ABOUT ENSURING Canadians have access to an open and affordable Internet. This is how Steve Anderson, founder and executive director of OpenMedia.ca, describes the mission of the consumer advocacy organization with respect to the ongoing battle over usage-based billing.

He spoke at length with Cartt.ca last week about UBB, the organization, its creation, its financial backing and other issues.

He says he got involved in Internet policy matters when net neutrality sparked considerable debate in the United States. It was for purely personal reasons at first, but once he realized that this issue would rear its head north of the 49th parallel, he began to research the issue and to read the likes of University of Ottawa Internet lawyer Michael Geist (also featured a while back by Cartt.ca).

“I always thought that we needed some sort of an organization or group that would defend the open Internet, would create a positive vision for the Internet, create a community around this issue and engage Canadians around these issues,” Anderson (pictured) explains.

His interest in Internet policy grew while studying for a Masters degree in communications at Simon Fraser University. There Anderson met other like-minded individuals – academics and citizens groups such as the Council of Canadians and others – and decided to create OpenMedia.ca. It was around the same time that Net Neutrality finally hit the Canadian airwaves, prompting him to start the Save Our Net Coalition (www.saveournet.ca).

So what started out as a part-time job while completing his studies has now morphed into a full-time gig and “something I’m pretty content to be working on and I feel privileged to be working on,” he says.

But it’s really been in the last year that OpenMedia.ca has made a name for itself – through a public awareness and engagement campaign surrounding usage-based billing. Dubbed “Stop the Meter”, the campaign was rather successful, creating a community of nearly 500,000 people who threw their support behind it. In addition, almost 100,000 people submitted letters to the CRTC’s UBB proceeding. Many of them were form letters, pre-written by OpenMedia.ca, which Anderson claims still had an impact because the Commission did decide to review its first decision.

Describing the past year as “explosive,” Anderson is proud of what the organization has done recently. “We’ve gone head to head with the big companies, gone to hearings, presented for the Heritage Committee,” he says.

Asked why UBB is such a driving force of OpenMedia.ca at the moment, Anderson says it’s because Canadians are tired of getting gouged by their Internet providers. He notes that he produced online video in the past and today finding success doing that might not be possible because of the caps and fees the big ISPs are imposing on Canadians.

“New innovators literally can’t do the kind of innovative work that they would do when they have to deal with these kinds of fees. I would not have been able to do video work I’ve done in the past had I had to deal with these types of fees,” he says.

Anderson added UBB also struck a chord because average Canadians are beginning to really feel the pinch in their pocketbooks as they pay higher prices for everything, including other services (like phone, wireless and television) offered by the same companies. “They’re at a visceral level and now know that they’re being gouged,” he says. “It’s not necessarily about the economy in an abstract sense or global competitiveness, it’s just about this is right and it’s a moral issue. And it’s not right for hugely profitable big companies to manipulate the regulatory environment and to gouge Canadians. For a lot of people, it’s about right and wrong.”

OpenMedia.ca is a non-profit that relies on donations to operate. There have been suggestions by telecom industry folks that Netflix is a big contributor to the citizen advocacy group or that other monied organizations are behind it. The strongest speculation is that the popular online video distributor is throwing cash at OpenMedia.ca to fund its campaign on UBB. When asked if Netflix donates to the organization, Anderson said he didn’t have the list of every single funder/donor handy.

“But what I will say is the majority of our funds come from individuals, the vast majority, and there are a bunch of companies that have supported us, including the independent ISPs,” he says. “Generally if companies want to step up and support our pro-Internet vision, and our citizen engagement efforts, we certainly have no problem with companies and organizations supporting us.”

Big supporters and organizations in the OpenMedia.ca network include other advocacy groups like the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC; this organization wrote OpenMedia.ca’s submission to the UBB review proceeding) and the Council of Canadians; unions such as the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Canadian Media Guild (CMG’s Karen Wirsig is on the board of OpenMedia.ca); as well as independent media publications like The Tyee, the Sasquatch, rabble.ca and others.

When asked why OpenMedia.ca doesn’t publish a financial statement (such as Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, another non-profit watchdog, which posts how it spends the over $2.2 million it collected in 2009 on its web site), Anderson concedes it something the group should do. “We should,” he said in an e-mail follow-up. “I believe an annual report is in works and should include something like this. That said our budget is pretty tiny so the numbers would be quite a bit smaller than Friends.”

While OpenMedia.ca has been successful in galvanizing public opinion against UBB, one wonders if the citizen advocacy group actually inflamed the issue by lumping in its push for not only a review of wholesale UBB, but also UBB at the retail level.

Anderson acknowledges that OpenMedia.ca wanted the CRTC to expand the review to include a look at the retail Internet market, but counters suggestions that the group “muddied the waters” on UBB. He actually blames the big telecom companies for that.

“I’ve heard representatives from telecom companies telling the media that people don’t know what they’re signing and they don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t understand. That kind of thing is just arrogant and elitist and really fuels public discontent,” Anderson says. “To say public engagement is muddying the waters, I think the water is the muddiest when you have industry insiders crafting policy with regulators. I think that’s problematic. What we’re doing is clearing the waters and really clearing the air and saying ‘you don’t need to listen to what the industry is telling you anymore, you don’t have to rely on their evidence that’s clearly biased, you can actually listen directly to the Canadian public.”

OpenMedia.ca says that fixing the wholesale access market to give small independent ISPs more autonomy in billing represents only one step to correcting a Canadian Internet market that is “out of step” with the rest of the world.

Anderson says there needs to be an “overhaul” of the Canadian telecommunications market to establish new rules that mimic those in other jurisdictions such as the UK where prices have dropped as a result of a new telecommunications framework. “Their pricing has gone down and that’s because they have functional separation,” he believes. “We don’t necessarily need a made in Canada solution, we don’t necessarily want to do the exact same thing as the UK, but we need to look at what’s working elsewhere.”

Anderson blames what he views as the poor state of the Canadian Internet market on two factors: the “iron grip” that the big players have the market and the CRTC’s lack of connection to the Canadian public. Removing the lock the major telcos and cablecos have on the market can be fixed with an appropriate wholesale access regime that puts billing control in the hands of independent ISPs, he says. Engaging the Commission with nearly 100,000 submissions on the UBB review is one way to connect it to the Canadian public, Anderson adds.

“There’s broad consensus that Canada is falling behind on key internet metrics and we believe… had the CRTC not been so insulated, had they be listening more to the Canadian people and less to the telecom industry that it regulates that we would be so far down this road,” he says.

The UBB review hearing (our latest update is here) begins on July 11.