The Internet is the fastest growing new form of communication since the printing press and the most powerful since television. About 200 million people use it worldwide. There are now more than 750,000 websites, and the number doubles annually. The Net knows no cultural or geographical boundaries, yet the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission wants to regulate it anyway.
The CRTC's plea last month for Canadians to decide if it should regulate the Net for Canadian content, pornography, and "hate literature" came as no surprise to webheads. "You could see this coming a mile away", says University of B.C. computer science professor Richard Rosenberg. "No doubt the CRTC will try patrolling the Net, but given past attempts to regulate less complicated technologies it will be a disaster."
The CRTC issued its plea in a July 31 public notice. The commission wants to establish a forum to discuss "the new media", defined as "services and products that make use of video, audio, graphics and alphanumeric text; and involving...digital delivery over networks interconnected on a local and global scale."
The CRTC predicted confidently the forum will "offer Canadians a clearer perception of the potential benefits they may reap from the evolution of new media services."
But three questions it puts to participants underline the commission's real agenda:
In an August 6 editorial, the Globe and Mail summed up it view that the CRTC's position is thoroughly self-serving: "Regulators think Net needs help. Why? Bureaucracy abhors a vacuum."
Prof. Rosenberg, who is also vice-president of Electronic Frontier Canada (EFC), a free speech advocacy group, agrees: "If the CRTC determines that the Net is a broadcaster instead of merely a carrier like telephone companies, it will pounce."
Meddling in new technology, which invariably creates work for bureaucrats, is a CRTC tradition. In 1994 it drew flak for exempting a Canadian satellite broadcaster from the usual lengthy licensing process and shutting out American rivals. In 1996 it ordered Canadian broadcasters to make the television V-chip censoring device available to subscribers-even though there is no evidence the chip works or that any concurrent rating system can handle the perpetual avalanche of new programming hitting the airwaves.
The CRTC forum, scheduled for November 23, comes on the heels of the failure of the U.S. Congress to regulate the Internet through the Communications Decency Act. The act, passed by Congress in February 1996, made providers and commercial on-line services and Internet service providers (ISPs) criminally responsible for the content of the messages that pass through their computers. The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently invalidated most of it.
Although computer experts claim that Net regulation is unfeasible and that software filters such as Net Nanny are the most effective protection against objectionable material, family advocates welcome the CRTC forum. "The 'they can't do it' argument is a cop-out", says Mark Genuis of Calgary, executive director of the National Foundation for Family Research and Education. "We're not looking for the government to become our thought police, but there are some things on the Internet that cross the line."
"What a mess", observes Prof. Rosenberg. "It's as if Ottawa doesn't realize that the Internet is inherently a global technology." Yet Prof. Rosenberg suspects that ISPs may welcome CRTC intervention. "It will put them in a more favourable position", he argues. "They will be given a series of broadcasting guidelines that, if followed, will protect them from legal trouble."