Usage Based Billing and Pre-Emptive Electioneering

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When news broke a few weeks ago of the federal Conservatives’ decision to overturn a recent CRTC ruling that allowed major telecom companies to impose usage-based billing packages on independent Internet service providers, I was one of thousands of Canadians who rejoiced. The idea of submitting to yet another nickle-and-diming ISP scheme made me close to physically ill, and the whole UBB system is, to me, a farce and a money grab engineered by a largely unchallenged media oligopoly.

In the wake of that decision and with today being the Stop The Meter National Day of Action, I find myself pondering its potential political impact in light of recent rumblings of a spring election. In casual conversation recently, a friend quipped, “Harper just scored the vote of everyone under 30.” It’s an exaggeration, yes, but in essence, he might be right. The most vocal opposition to usage based billing came from a demographic pejoratively (and reductively) labeled by ISPs as “heavy users.” This is a group made up of mostly young people using the Internet as an alternative or supplement to traditional broadcasting; people streaming movies on Netflix, watching videos on YouTube, uploading and downloading massive files to and from Vimeo. In other words, it’s that mythologized “creative class” that’s flocked to the Net looking for, producing, and sharing content that major media companies have nothing to do with.

By taking apparently decisive action to protect the practices and preferences of this key demographic (who, not-so-coincidentally, are the young people who didn’t vote in the past two elections, and in large part, still aren’t voting), the Harper government appears sort of in line with the interests of a vaguely leftish alternavoter. That’s a lot of caveats and “sort ofs,” but when was the last time Stephen Harper appeared even a little bit hip?

Tweet from @PMHarper, 2 February 2011

Tweet from @PMHarper, 2 February 2011

We should keep in mind, though, that the Harper Conservatives were in fact the last to the anti-UBB party and the most reticent to respond to the overwhelming grassroots Stop the Meter Campaign spearheaded by Vancouver activist organization The federal NDP were the first to officially oppose the scheme, followed by the Liberals and the Greens. Granted, it’s a very rare day in Canada when all federal parties agree on anything, and it’s even rarer when this issue is focused on media policy and consumer rights instead of vaguely defined bluster about “better healthcare” or “education funding.” But given the relatively slow uptake of the issue by Industry Minister Tony Clement, I’d wager that the UBB debate will become a hot button issue in the coming election. Watch for a race to shape up at the federal level geared toward winning the favor of the aforementioned sort-of leftish 20-30 something digital native alternavoter, with the UBB debate, and who cared more, earlier, at its center.

This is hardly a bad thing. On the contrary, it will be a refreshing change of pace to see a digital culture item on the electoral agenda. The uproar over consumer exploitation on the part of ISPs may even force the major parties to finally take the online landscape and the voters who inhabit it seriously, rather than pander to them with the sort of half-hearted and half-witted forays into the field we’ve seen in previous campaigns (see the embarrassingly bad use of social media and Web communication by all major parties). Will UBB and digital rights issues be the debate that finally snaps millennial and Gen Y voters out of their cynical, apathetic funks?

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