Josh Tabish took a break from the war to save net neutrality to vacation in his hometown where he graduated from Carihi (pictured behind him).

At the frontlines of Internet freedom

Technology: Campbell River native’s battle against corporate control of the 'Net takes him to the White House

When 12-year-old Josh Tabish connected to the world through a dial up Internet connection for the first time, he probably had no idea that more than 10 years later he would be in Washington, DC urging U.S. lawmakers to keep the Internet free and open to everybody.

But as a 12-year-old, he surely would have related to his adult self blasting citizens’ messages at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) building through a giant Jumbotron screen as part of the battle to keep the Internet free. A battle that proved victorious last month.

“We won. We did it. The ‘little guy’ won,” Tabish said.

Tabish and the organization he works for, Open Media, scored that victory last month when the U.S. Federal Communications Commission announced that new rules will entrench “net neutrality” and prevent telecommunications conglomerates from creating “slow lanes” on the Internet.

The victory concluded a year-long grassroots campaign waged by a global coalition led by Vancouver-based OpenMedia, which Carihi graduate Tabish works for.

“My job is to design and execute online campaigns on digital issues,” Tabish said. “What we look at is policies that keep the Internet open and free.”

OpenMedia, according to its website, is a community-based organization that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet.

It works toward informed and participatory digital policy by engaging hundreds of thousands of people in protecting our online rights.

Fifty-five per cent of its financial support comes from individual donors and philanthropic sources.

It has a membership of 700,000 people, 500,000 of whom are Canadians.

But it’s a player on the world stage when it comes to the battle for net neutrality.

The new FCC rules announced last month entrench the concept that the Internet in the United States is a common carrier and not a service like cable TV.

That means large telecommunications corporations can’t keep the best technology to themselves and charge their customers for it – who would, of course, pass that cost on to you, the consumer.

The slow lanes or channels would be left for public use.

And why should Canadians care how the U.S. regulates the Internet? Well, because “The fact that the U.S. did deliver, in the end, on the strongest rules possible sets a real precedent for other decision makers around the world looking at how they are going to set their rules,” Tabish said.

Canada had already entrenched the concept of net neutrality in its Internet rules back in 2009.

“The US example and Canada’s example are both very good ones to follow,” Tabish said.

It wasn’t Tablish’s idea to place the huge jumbotron on the street in Washington to project messages from ordinary people around the world to federal communication regulators deliberating on new Internet rules, but he was the one phoning around Washington trying to find a Jumbotron to rent. It also included a huge sound system which generated complaints and an order to turn it down, which they ignored.

Tabish is OpenMedia’s campaigns coordinator for Internet access campaigns.

He was “headhunted” by OpenMedia after graduating from Simon Fraser University’s Communications program where he coordinated the Media Democracy Project and organized the annual Media Democracy Days conferences.

His net neutrality campaign earned him a trip to the White House to talk with President Barack Obama’s communications advisors. He and representatives of citizen groups convinced the president to come out in support of strong net neutrality rules and urge FCC regulators to do likewise.


Just a small-town boy


So how does a boy from Campbell River end up in the White House talking communications policy with U.S. lawmakers?

It all came back to that dial-up Internet connection back when he was 12. He saw the possibilities even back then to communicate with the world.

“I didn’t do sports. I didn’t do fishing. I didn’t do all the things that a normal kid from Campbell River is supposed to do,” Tabish said.

But to link up to the Internet and the World Wide Web as a 12-year-old was an eye-opening moment.

“To experience that unlimited information and connection to the rest of the world even though it was on a 56 K dial-up connection,” Tabish said.

He was always interested in technology and digital policy. He “tried forestry for a year” but soon decided he would go to school. At SFU he studied communications expecting, perhaps, to become a broadcaster.

“I ended up becoming a radio guest, instead of a radio host,” Tabish said.

He got hooked on what kind of messages are coming out of our media and took a great interest in the connection between media and democracy.

“And the Internet, particularly, because it was a level playing field,” Tabish said.

It was at SFU where he organized the Media Democracy Project. And it was that work that attracted him to OpenMedia.

They hired him to be their campaigns coordinator.

Now his day job is to fight to keep the Internet a level playing field.

The current battle is against Bell media’s attempt to reverse a recent CRTC decision that found the company to be making competing mobile video apps and services more expensive.

Tabish said in his blog on that “in January, the CRTC ruled that companies like Bell must stop exempting their own services from users’ monthly data caps – marking up competing video services by up to 800 per cent.

“Bell was given until April 29 to stop the practice and respect net neutrality, but they are now challenging the decision.”

Then there’s the Harper government’s Bill C51 which critics, like Open Media, say is infringing on Canadians’ liberty in a broad sense, not just with regards to the Internet.

So, there’s no end to the battle to keep the Internet free and open.

“The Internet never sleeps and threats to it are constant,” Tabish said.

And at the front lines of this fight for liberty, you’ll see a man born and raised in Campbell River leading the way.