The topic of “net neutrality” is not one that grabs people’s attention at a cocktail party.  They crinkle their brows and quickly tune out – that is until they realize what it means to their lives.

The discussion over net neutrality is in essence an argument over who owns the internet and what flows through the pipes. Do you like using Skype to call relatives in India? Do you like watching live-streamed soccer games? Then net neutrality is a topic you should have an opinion on.

In April, a U.S. appeals court ruled that the US Federal Communications Commission did not have the authority to order telecommunication companies like Comcast to stop slowing down some sorts of internet traffic.

This opens the door for telecommunications companies to prioritize certain traffic. They could begin to prioritize traffic that flows from their own websites and subsidiaries, or even companies that enter into lucrative sponsorship deals. Companies not part of the deals will have their traffic slowed down.

Speaking at Net Change Week, Matt Thompson, lead Web Developer for the Mozilla Drumbeat project at the Mozilla Foundation, puts it into perspective. “It’s about protecting free speech and innovation,” he tells me after his talk. “It’s about protecting the public’s right to choose.”

Before joining Mozilla, Thompson worked for Free Press, an organization involved in, a movement attempting to protect the neutrality of the net. The United States is currently working its way through the consequences of net neutrality, but Canada seems even further behind.

“What is Canada’s plan for digital infrastructure?” he asks. “Canada used to be a leader in telecommunications. It used to be part of our identity. Now Canada lags.” When asked of other models of success, he points overseas. “Asia gets it. Europe gets it. They force everyone to share the same pipes.”

The result is far higher market penetration, lower prices and faster broadband speeds than we are used to in North America. “It throttles innovation,” he says. A truly free market would be a boon for web development, but telecommunications monopolies don’t make for very free markets.

“If 70 years ago the trains in Asia were running 100 times faster than they were here, we’d do something about it,” he says. “It’s a threat to economic competitiveness.”

Joseph Wilson

Joseph was an education advisor at MaRS Discovery District. He writes on topics of science, culture and city issues for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events. See more…