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An interview with Ben Klass: a telecom policy love story, and beating Bell at the CRTC

I sat down with Ben Klass, a student, researcher and citizen-leader in telecom policy reform in Canada. We spoke about why he cares about the open Web, how he came to be involved with OpenMedia and his journey in the Bell Mobile TV CRTC complaint. This is the edited version of our interview below.

Meghan: What was your Peter Parker moment? To phrase that differently: why are you interested in working on telecom issues?

Ben: It was really the usage-based billing (UBB) petition in 2011 that really sort of got me interested in the telecom space, and the Canadian telecom space in particular. I was doing my master’s degree at the University of Manitoba in political studies, and I was fishing around for a paper to write, and the big debacle over usage-based billing was going on. And so coming from that academic perspective I wanted to know more about it and I started researching it. It’s a topic – the Internet and people’s access to the Internet – that I have always been interested in. I had AOL when I was a kid growing up in the States, you know I have always found the Internet to be tremendously useful and a pretty important part of my life and basically I was just excited by the fact that so many other people were passionate about it as well. So that was the event that sparked my interest.

Meghan: That’s a great segue into my next question: for you, why do you think the open Internet is important to preserve – what really grabs you?

Ben: I remember listening to a radio broadcast, an interview, talking about Encyclopedia Britannica. You might remember as a kid – maybe you had one or the school had one – it’s a big, expensive, multi-volume shelf full of books with all the world’s knowledge on it. And they were interviewing someone who talked about how Wikipedia was replacing the Encyclopedia Britannica. And the person in charge, the CEO of Encyclopedia Britannica or something, pointed to a particular article that Wikipedia had wrong about Andrew Jackson or Alexander Hamilton – some American founding figure – and he pointed out that Encyclopedia Britannica is edited by panels of experts who make sure that inaccuracies, like what exists in the Wikipedia article, don’t get through to the published edition, as an example of the superiority of curation and expert oversight of information.

But the thing about it was, in the interview, after it was over the radio host pointed to the fact that by the time they had finished talking about this, the Wikipedia article had been changed – it had been corrected by the people who edit it. And I just thought that it’s such a perfect example of the power of making information freely available, not just to people who want to consume it, but to people who want to contribute. So I think that it’s really just such a tremendous source of power for a diversity of people and information, and the basis of its ability to empower people is placing the prerogative to participate in an individual’s hands.

The core thing is that you don’t have to ask for permission from anyone to do that. If you’ve got a good idea to share, whether it’s intellectual or social or business, you can just put it out there and see if it succeeds without having to ask permission from some existing company or government agency.

I had AOL when I was a kid growing up in the States, you know I have always found the Internet to be tremendously useful and a pretty important part of my life and basically I was just excited by the fact that so many other people were passionate about it as well.

"It’s not just a matter of unleashing the most recent technology and having it be the savior of a free society, but rather the decisions that we collectively make, political and social decisions about how the Internet is going to be made available and how it’s going to be used have really important implications."

Meghan: This reminds me of Lawrence Lessig’s book “Free Culture” and the line that he draws between a free culture and a permission culture and the idea that you would have to ask for permission from people to share ideas and create new things goes against the way that innovation and art has been fostered throughout history.

Ben: Lessig’s most famous book “Code and Other Laws” sets out so clearly that the choices we make about how to structure our communications and information technologies have real effects on the possibilities for social organization, for individual empowerment, for basically any sort of social system. And I think that really highlights the importance of making decisions that keep the Internet open, making sure that people have access. It’s not just a matter of unleashing the most recent technology and having it be the savior of a free society, but rather the decisions that we collectively make, political and social decisions about how the Internet is going to be made available and how it’s going to be used have really important implications.

Meghan: And the impacts that can have both online and offline. Now, shifting our our focus to OpenMedia, I imagine this is probably pretty tied up in your Peter Parker moment: tell me, how did you first become aware of OpenMedia and what has your involvement with the organization been so far?

Ben: I mean, the UBB issue, OpenMedia really sort of brought Internet policy issues out into the mainstream. I was a little young to be interested in these things in the 90s – but talking about telephone deregulation and local exchanges and so on, it feels like that just doesn’t grab the imagination in the same way as talking about a free and open Internet, and that’s what OpenMedia really did. It took that and made it into an issue that people can understand, that people can relate to. It’s true for anyone who pays attention to their campaigns and it is true for me. I think that OpenMedia’s profile since 2010/2011 has only grown, and their policy interventions have become more substantial. In terms of my involvement with OpenMedia, I had filed a complaint to the CRTC about some discriminatory pricing in 2013, and after I did that I contacted Steve [Anderson] and David Christopher and Josh [Tabish] to talk about getting it on the radar.

Meghan: You seem to focus your work on zero-rating, and I was hoping you can tell me a little bit more about the work you have done on that and what the TL;DR of the report you just filed is?

Ben: For sure. When I filed my complaint to the CRTC about Bell’s mobile TV service in 2013, the issue was that Bell was offering a TV app to its customers on mobile phones that allowed you to watch 10 hours of video for $5/month on top of the subscription fee you pay for mobile service. But when you wanted to use any other video apps, or any other app at all, you’d have to pay the full data rate. And that amounted at the time to I think about eight times more for the equivalent amount of Netflix.

At its heart the issue of zero-rating is about discriminatory pricing, it’s about an ISP making a decision to charge a different price to deliver data to your device based on the service. And in the case of Bell mobile TV, a lot of those channels were owned by Bell, the terms were quite favourable, and with only a few communications companies offering service in the country they start making decisions like this and pretty soon what you see is that the Internet is looking a lot more like cable TV than it is like an open platform. That’s actually something that Bell basically hinged its argument on: “this is like cable TV, we want this to be more like cable TV, and the way that the law is constructed says that when we have a cable service we can charge what we want for it.”

For zero-rating I think it’s about the price people pay to access the Internet, it’s about who gets to decide, and it’s about making sure that people can make choices about what type of information they want – whether they can make the choice based on a level playing ground, and whether the ISP itself gets to have a say in which services we can access at a reasonable rate and which ones will be subject to expensive fees.

"So, to me, that sort of demonstrated the possibility that these people are listening, not just to the big vested interests, not just to the regulated industries, but if someone has a good argument, a reasonable position and something to say about it, that they will have a listen to it."

Meghan: At OpenMedia we’ve fought Bell a few times, and won a few times. And you’ve also fought Bell and won. Can you tell me, did it feel like David and Goliath when you were doing it?

Ben: Again, I was really sort of inspired by OpenMedia’s usage-based billing campaign, because in that case in 2011 Bell wanted to impose a usage-based billing model on all of its competitors. And the CRTC had actually approved Bell’s initiative, and then OpenMedia started a campaign where so many people in a very short space of time said ‘no’ and it got the attention of the government, and they turned that around and reversed the decision. So, to me, that sort of demonstrated the possibility that these people are listening, not just to the big vested interests, not just to the regulated industries, but if someone has a good argument, a reasonable position and something to say about it, that they will have a listen to it.

Meghan: And how did you feel when you saw that Bell was appealing the case?

Ben: Well, the David and Goliath thing, I think the media wants to talk about that. But that [the appeal] was the moment when I thought “oh geez, I’m really in over my head here.” Because the CRTC is an administrative tribunal, it’s a big institution and they have rules and regulations, not just about governing the communications industry, but about how to participate and how their processes are conducted. But you can learn those relatively easily – again, thanks to the power of the open Internet. So filing the complaint to the CRTC, there was not really any sense of me versus Bell or anything, it’s just that I saw something that this company was doing that I didn’t think was right and is against the law, and I thought “okay well they bent over backwards saying the to CRTC that if you use more you should pay more, and charge for users to use their service” and then they [Bell] turn around and make their own service out from the cap. And that’s what I’m engaged with, right, is this issue of saying either you have space to see users on the network using it as they see fit or you don’t. And if you do have that kind of space, how can you justify charging these really high rates for usage, and if you don’t have the space, how is it that you’re able to let your own TV service through. That’s what I was engaging with, I wasn’t thinking “oh geez, I’m really going to get these guys at Bell.”

And the CRTC agreed, so that felt really good. They made their decision and they had a speech about it, and the Commissioner cited me by name, and that felt really great, and then a couple of weeks later I got a letter saying that a legal proceeding has been commenced against you, and somewhere in there was a paragraph saying “we’re looking for costs.” Whoever loses the case has to pay for the other person’s lawyer, and Bell’s got the biggest law firm in the country. ... At that point I had moved to Ottawa, some people knew about this decision, and I wound up having some help from a lawyer who offered to do it pro-bono. And just as with the OpenMedia campaign and with the mobile TV thing, it’s not about “David vs. Goliath,” it’s a community of people who have similar interests coming together to support the types of values that they want to see shaping the Internet.

Meghan: At the end of this you were successful. How did you celebrate when it was all over?

Ben: Oh I think I probably had a beer. Maybe two. It was a big relief because every step of the way you’re not sure what’s going to happen, you just try to make the best argument you can and hope that it comes out right. And in the case of the CRTC they got it right after about a year, and the court took about six months. And it’s three justices who hear all kinds of cases, they’re not Internet experts, but when they came out with the decision they nailed it.

Meghan: All of that considered: the community engagement, the long process that it finally took to win that battle – do you feel like there is a way that we could be working to make citizen participation easier?

Ben: I think there’s two sides to every coin. You have OpenMedia on one hand drawing lots of attention, bringing people to the table just sort of in a general way, making people aware of these sorts of things. But also over the past couple of years I have watched Josh [Tabish] and Cynthia [Khoo] and a variety of people actually appearing in front of the CRTC for OpenMedia, doing really solid research and getting involved and bringing citizen perspectives to the table…  So I think the number one thing is: keep up the good work. And I know that’s not easy. It costs a lot of money and it takes a lot of time. And there is a certain amount of expertise you need to participate in an informed and responsible way. So by setting that example and bringing news of it to people who are interested, but, you know, they have a job.

The other side of the coin, is that you go on Twitter all of the time and you see people saying “f***ing CRTC, why can’t I watch my American Netflix?” And the CRTC has to respond itself saying “that’s a rights thing and we don’t regulate the copyright act.” And so I think there is still a lot of work to be done, it’s not your job to boost the CRTC’s PR, but I think that they have been undergoing efforts over there to be better known to the public and to be more accessible. And I can only say that I hope that continues.

"But then again there’s lots of things I don’t know about and I rely on you guys just as much as anyone else to learn about the TPP, and saving the ability to use links on the Internet in the way that we do now, dealing with issues of privacy."

Meghan: What would you like to see OpenMedia do next? If Ben Klass had his wish what would you like to see from us?

Ben: I am a telecom policy guy, that’s my area of research and my academic interest on a personal level. So I have a bias to hoping OpenMedia will stay active on these issues. So far I see you’ve submitted a substantial expert intervention on zero-rating. It’s a broad policy hearing that the CRTC wants to know, not just about a particular company like Bell TV or Videotron Music or anything, but they want to know how we’re going to deal with this industry trend. OpenMedia has Cynthia Khoo, who I have a tremendous amount of admiration for as an intellect and has written your report. So I think continuing to see you do the hard work, to be in the trenches on that file.

But then again there’s lots of things I don’t know about and I rely on you guys just as much as anyone else to learn about the TPP, and saving the ability to use links on the Internet in the way that we do now, dealing with issues of privacy. It’s a huge amount of files that you’re tackling. So in terms of the wish-list thing for me it’s just that you guys just keep on doing the hard work. We need people like you to make sure we’re not giving away the farm every time we go to collect a pokemon.

Meghan: The point that you make about community really resonates with me because obviously we count on our partner organizations around the world, and other experts and people like yourself, so it is really a community who care about how the rulemaking that we’re all subjected to happens. There’s a whole universe of people who care about this and we’re all working together to make sure that when an issue comes up we all know about it and can have the most effective intervention into policy, or education campaign, or even just making sure we stay on top of emerging issues.

Last question for you: you lived in Manitoba for quite a while – it’s home for you. They have some of the lowest wireless prices in the whole country. So I’m wondering, is this how you managed to finance your grad-school education?

Ben: Am I behind the black market cell-phone plans? If that’s the question I’ll just say, “no comment.”